Misunderstanding Media Violence

imgres-4As we enter the most recent round in the media violence debate, a story from the past is illustrative of the difficulties in drawing conclusions too quickly from what seem like common sense observations.

In a now-famous study conducted in the 1970s, a group of American researchers were convinced they’d come up with a perfect way to measure the effects of violent media.[i] They had decided to study teenage boys who lived in residential facilities and boarding schools where television viewing could be completely controlled. For a period of six weeks, half of the boys were permitted to watch only violent programs and the other half non-violent shows. Everyone expected the boys exposed to violence to become more aggressive and unruly, as similar studies of younger children had demonstrated. But the findings shocked everyone. As the weeks went by the boys watching the non-violent shows started fistfights and began vandalizing the schools. They disrupted classes and shouted expletives at teachers and each other, while the groups viewing the violent shows remained peaceful and studious, even more so than usual.

The researchers were baffled. Maybe the violent shows had helped their viewers blow off steam with some kind of cathartic effect.  But past studies of catharsis had shown that it varied dramatically from individual to individual and never lasted very long. Soon more experts began examining the findings and eventually they came up with the answer. The group watching the non-violent programs had become angry because they had been denied their favorite shows (they were especially upset about Batman). Viewing enjoyment or unhappiness, it turned out, played a much greater role in the boys’ behavior than the amount of violence they saw.  If fact, the media violence seemed to have no effect whatsoever.

The point of this anecdote is not to suggest that media violence is harmless. My research over the past decade has convinced me that violent media cause plenty of harm. But the dangers are not always the ones that seem most obvious. The common-sense assumptions that one draws from watching a four-year old boy throw a karate kick like a Teenage Ninja Turtle do not necessarily apply to a teenager, an eight-year old, or even another preschooler. Like the boys in the residence homes, media affects people in highly individualized ways. By the same token, the social factors underlying aggression and crime are influenced by far more than violent media. After decades of prouncements by headline-hungry politicians and pop psychologists that social problems might be fixed with better TV viewing habits and less video games, the consensus of academics, educators, and policy makers has begun to shift in recent years to a more holistic consideration of violent media and violent people.  – David Trend


[i] Seymour Feshbach and Robert B. Singer, Television and Aggression (New York: Jossey-Bass, 1971) p. 12.

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