In late July 2010, the International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA) had its XIX World Meeting at the University of Connecticut at Storrs CT, USA. In several of the sessions, researchers manifested some consternation at the fact that the causal link established in previous research between viewing media violence and aggressive behavior has been questioned by some in recent years. Coincidentally, only three days after the end of the conference another tragic example of workplace violence occurred in nearby Manchester, CT: a worker facing dismissal apparently brought a handgun to work in his lunch bag and shot 10 company and union officials and co-workers, killing eight as well as himself.
The issue of the effects of media violence has its roots in the 1960s, when correlational studies suggesting a link between viewing violence and aggressive behavior were investigated by experiments that suggested that viewing violence could indeed cause aggressive behavior in angry persons. The relative artificiality of the initial experimental studies was circumvented by later field experiments and surveys conducted with the support of the U. S. Surgeon General's office and published in 1970. The Surgeon General's report concluded that there is a modest causal relationship between exposure to television violence and aggressive behavior and that this relationship may be stronger for children who are predisposed to be aggressive. This basic conclusion has stood up remarkably well over the years. A National Institute of Mental Health review in 1982 concluded that a convergence of evidence from many studies overwhelmingly supports the notion that televised violence does in fact cause aggressive behavior in children, and the American Academy of Pediatrics concurred in 2001 that exposure to media violence poses a significant health risk to children and adolescents. Ironically, as the confidence in the causal relationship between media violence and aggression increased after 1975, attention to that relationship in news media waned. Perhaps it became an old story. At the same time, writings questioning that relationship, no matter how flimsy their evidence, became news because they were unusual: man bites dog.
Recently, some have questioned whether the conclusion that viewing violence causes aggression can be extended to violent video games, an issue of particular relevance because of current pending legislation and other legal proceedings regarding labeling and restricting sales of such games to minors. However, a comprehensive 2010 meta-analytic review by Craig Anderson of Iowa State University and colleagues published in Psychological Bulletin concluded that violent video games significantly increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and decrease empathic feelings and prosocial behaviors; in both male and female viewers. These conclusions were supported by the results of several studies presented at the ISRA meeting: these included longitudinal studies conducted in the United States, Germany, and Singapore. It seems evident that the media violence effect applies to video games as well.
The media violence issue has tended to place at loggerheads social scientists and media professionals who may hold otherwise compatible values and goals. For example, many who value free expression worry that based upon this evidence violent media content may be censored, and few social scientists support censorship. However, it may be possible to view this debate in a new light, which suggests that media violence might be designed and presented in ways that afford emotional education, and thereby potentially have social benefits as well as excite the curiosity, interest, and excitement of viewers.
Social learning theories of aggression imply that children learn to be aggressive because they are exposed to models of aggression which they imitate. However, also at the ISRA meeting, Richard E. Tremblay of the University of Montréal cited evidence that, in most children, the frequency of physical aggression increases during the first 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years and then decreases. This is consistent with animal research as reflected in the notion of peer affectional systems developed in my post on stages of emotional development. This suggests that, in part through communicating and interacting with peers, most preschoolers learn to regulate aggression: e.g., to NOT use overt physical aggression.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that a high level of physical aggression in a minority of children is a significant predictor of later criminal and anti-social behaviors, and it may be these children who are most susceptible to models of aggression and therefore tend to be most negatively affected by violent media. Social-cognitive models suggest that the effects of violent media on aggression operate in part by affecting hostile interpretations. Would it be possible to target the connection between aggressive exposure and hostile interpretation by paying careful attention to exploiting untapped potential of aggressive content to teach viewers to label, understand, regulate, and communicate angry feelings; and to eschew giving way to hostile action? Can media violence be presented in such a way as to teach viewers to respond in positively constructive ways?
Questions such as these are potentially of interest to media practitioners as well as researchers, and possibilities of presenting even violent and apparently antisocial content in prosocial ways should not be overlooked. The educational potential of video games and virtual reality is enormous, and they have particular promise as emotional educators. But, in these potential applications, the age of the viewer and the associated appropriateness of the message must be kept in mind. Suitably labeling and effectively restricting sales of violent video games to minors seems an appropriate policy. As a wise man put it long ago:
"...The legislator should not allow youth to be spectators of iambi or of comedy until they are of an age to sit at the public tables and to drink strong wine; by that time education will have armed them against the evil influences of such representations."
Aristotle, Politics. Book 7, Chapter XVII. Cited by R. E. Tremblay, "Developmental Origins of Aggression, Epigenetics, and Prevention." Plenary address at the XIX World Meeting of the International Society for Research on Aggression, Storrs, CT, USA. July 27-31, 2010.