Co-authored by Steve Schlozman, MD
December 21 the National Rifle Association (NRA) blamed the media for promoting violent video games and movies and then cited these phenomena as the primary causes of mass violence. The CEO stated, “Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?” The NRA also chastised the media for producing “blood soaked” films such as American Psycho and Natural Born Killers. The NRA is not alone in this accusation. Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, proclaimed, “Pornography and violence poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this cesspool.”
The assertions that violent movies and videogame cause kids to become violent have been made for a long time. Some researchers have noted that Columbine High School shooters Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold were avid computer gamers. Ironically, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter was seen by his roommates as odd because he never joined them in video games.
Do the assumptions about video-game violence leading to similarly violent behavior among children and adolescents make sense? On the surface many might think that “pulling the trigger” in such games is even worse that watching a violent film passively.. There has in fact been extensive research and writing on the impact of violent movies and videos on behavior in kids. Some worry that there is a direct link, while others are concerned that these kinds of activities simply isolate kids or have addictive potential. The biggest fear many parents and clinicians have is that exposure to games or visual media with violent content may turn ordinary children and adolescents into violent people in the real world.
But research is clearly lacking on a direct causal relationship between violent video games and youth violence. Interestingly, the US has the highest homicide rate in the world. But, as Fareed Zakaria noted in The Washington Post, the Japanese are avid video game players and have a homicide rate close to zero. He argues that the difference is the incredibly strict restrictions on firearms. In fact, the rate of video game use of all kinds is actually decreasing in the United States, and many of the top selling games are decidedly non-violent. (Does the NRA want to take on Super-Mario Brothers as etiologic for mass shootings?) Furthermore, as Mr. Zakaria suggests, many comparable nations have comparable consumption of video game and violent media, but low homicide rates.
The fact is that analyses of school shooting incidents from the US Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime do not support a link between violent games and real world attacks. In 2011 the Supreme Court struck down California’s law barring the sale or rental of violent video games to people under 18. Dr. Cheryl Olson, one of a number of consutants supporting a brief challenging the law, noted in a New York Times Op-Ed on June 27, 2011 that he Court opinion stated that fairy tales are full of violence. She further reported that after hearing a great deal of testimony it concluded that we just don’t know enough about the effects of video games to recommend sound policy solutions. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. agreed with the majority opinion. Justice Alito opined that we should be careful about the development of technology and that “may have important societal implications that will become apparent only with time,” and that video games “may have potential benefits as well as potential risks.” Indeed, there has been research demonstrating a positive effect of violent games on hand-eye coordination and other skills.
There is, however, no doubt that the content of our visual and even written fictional media is bloody. Consider one particularly violent and well-known narrative: A broken and tired man returns from war unexpectedly, only to find what appears to him to be strangers taking advantage of his house and his family. In a fit of rage, he slaughters the people in his house, even after the victims of his carnage beg him for forgiveness.
Odysseus took aim and hit him with an arrow
in the throat. Its point passed through his tender neck.
He slumped onto his side, and, as he was hit,
the cup fell from his hand. A thick spurt of human blood
came flowing quickly from his nose. Then, suddenly
he pushed the table from him with his foot, spilling
food onto the floor
Lots of people read Homer’s Odyssey. And most of those people read this poem in the 9th grade. There is no denying its violence, and there is no denying it’s cultural value.
Are we comparing The Odyssey to movies like Natural Born Killers? Not exactly. But we want to be extremely cautious about where we draw our lines. Just as the Supreme Court noted, fairy tales are often quite violent. So are Disney films. (Go watch the first scene of Finding Nemo when Nemo’s mother is killed. Or watch the scene in The Lion King when Simba’s uncle, Scar, kills his father, Mufasa.) Discussing why violent content pervades some of our most powerful and cherished metaphors is the subject of a different post, but it is clear that we’ve had violent visual content much longer than we’ve had mass shootings. If anything, much of this violence serves as reminder of how NOT to behave. Odysseus, is after all, reprimanded and punished by the gods for his bloody excess.
As a responsible society, where does this leave us? Certainly we're in a more complex place than the rather simplistic dialectic that the NRA has put forth. We all need to be concerned about the potential negative impact of violent media and video games on our youth. Are they totally harmless or are there concerns that justify parental vigilance and new social policies? Does exposure to violence, including games, movies and many fairy tales, actually help kids cope with their aggression and fears? Does the amount of time, and the ways that they play (alone or with others) worthy of concern? Are violent movies dangerous, and if so, what should we allow our kids to see?
Of equal concern is whether we should be wary of the local news that is filled with murders, rapes, burglaries right in our kids’ own familiar neighborhoods. All these are very important questions, but sadly there is limited (or poor) scientific research to help us know what media is dangerous to whom. At this point in time, we just do not know.
In 2004, an MGH team of researchers led by Dr. Olson studied 1254 7th and 8th graders and 500 parents in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, looking at what kids were playing, how much time they played and the possible relationship to delinquent behavior. They found that many of these kids played violent games, that two-thirds of 14 year-old boys played at least one violent game often versus a quarter of the girls surveyed. The researchers also found that kids played games for these reasons : to cope with their emotions, to enjoy challenging situations, to keep up with peers playing similar games, to create their own worlds, and to relieve stress.
There were correlations between playing violent games and self-reported physical fights and delinquent behavior, particularly with greater amounts of time played. However, this was only true in a small percentage of children who already exhibited aggressive traits and a high stress level. Actually they found that the traits of aggression and stress were predictive of delinquent behavior and bullying and not the playing of violent video games themselves. Is the tail wagging the dog, in other words? Are the children who are thought to wander towards aggression as a result of playing video games in fact attracted to video games because they are already prone to aggression in the first place? On the other hand, the researcher found that parent involvement and parent/peer support seemed to be protective of these negative behaviors. The study did in fact find that aggressive kids seem to be drawn to these games, and that these games might have affected them differently compared to the other kids who are not angry or aggressive.
However, there seems to be a relationship between about 5-6% of kids who get into trouble, sometimes violent, and the amount of time playing violent games. It must be emphasized that there were no CAUSAL relationships found between violent games and violent behavior, just CORRELATIONS, and this could mean there are other things in life that may be involved.
t was also found in this work that about 95% of parents do not play the video games with their kids nor did they know the violent content of the games. Many were shocked to hear about some of the themes in the games. Parents were worried about the realism, target, context and goals of the violent games.
Similar problems exist in the research about violent movies. Most of the science is not very good. However, in the few sound studies, there was also an apparent relationship between the time watching violent TV or movies and aggressive acts in real life – but only for a small percentage of kids and young adults. There seems to be a greater effect on younger children, such as pre-schoolers, who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. (This might suggest why Disney movies are potentially more easily tolerated by toddlers. When Nemo’s mother dies, she is still, at the end of the day, a talking fish, and that helps younger kids to separate fantasy from reality.) It also appears that when violence is coupled with an attractive movie star and combined with sexuality, the impact appears to be stronger.
The bottom line is that for violent movies and video games, we just do not know the relationship between viewing or playing and aggression in the real world – in concert with the Supreme Court decision about video games. Research to date does not inform us. But we should be concerned and wary of risks.
Advice for Parents
Here are some tips for parents when they consider their kids video game playing and movie watching:
Advice for Clinicians:
The assertion that violent video games and movies cause violent behavior has not been demonstrated by scientific research. Youth who have aggressive traits and are stressed are more prone to delinquent and bullying behavior, and are also drawn to these games, but their behavior in real life is not predicted by playing the games. All youth are protected from violence in the world by close, supportive relationships with parents and peers. There are a small percentage of youth, perhaps 5% who are at risk of engaging in violent behavior.
As we seek to find reasons for violence, many are prone to make global, simplistic and often false assertions as to the causes. It might be far wiser to consider better research on the multiple causes of violence in our society. Would work towards better schools, less poverty, and more attention and support for working parents and their children be a better and more rational approach? At the same time we may be better spending our time and money on seeking to determine youth who are at risk of violence by early and regular mental health screening, and preventing such behavior from developing. We require annual physical examinations of youth in order to attend public schools. Why not require annual mental health screening for all youth? When a child at risk is discovered, early intervention could be initiated. And yet, persistent and malignant barriers to psychological attention continue to plague our health care system.
Since we do know that protective factors for violence are supportive peer and family relationships we should be working toward fostering peace and support at home and with friends. This may be well a goal we should seek to attain to keep our children safe. How we accomplish this goal will be complex, multi-faceted and, if successful, comprehensive. These challenges are in no way simple.