As our nation copes with last Friday’s horrifying ordeal, one that left twenty young schoolchildren and six dedicated educators dead, we wonder what we could have done to prevent this tragedy from occurring. Mourning over the loss of loved ones is sure to turn to action directed at limiting access to the types of weapons that can be used to perpetrate these sorts of crimes and environmental factors that inspire the aggressive behavior exhibited by adolescent mass murderers. In the immediate wake of the tragedy, much media attention has focused on the state of our country’s mental health system. Many psychologists, mothers, fathers and friends of the mentally ill have issued a cry for help, for these individuals are often subject to care simply inadequate for their special needs. But as the dust settles and we learn more about the severely disturbed man unable to cope on his own with his inner demons, we may find that psychological dysfunction was not the only influence on Adam Lanza’s behavior.
Naturally, we suspect the environment had some influence. But what aspects can drive someone to commit such a horrible crime? Was Adam subject to bullying or teasing from his peers? Was he subject to childhood abuse? Did he watch violent movies or play violent video games? For many years, psychologists have become particularly interested in the connection between violent video games and aggressiveness that may lead to delinquent behavior. Much research has purported to show a strong link, leading the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2005 to release a resolution on violent video games. The recommendation was to better consider what types of steps should be taken to limit these influences of violent behavior. Following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, people like Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil blamed violent video games for the increase in school shootings (although it was later revealed that the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, didn’t play video games). The research shows just how imperative it is for us to more thoroughly study the effects of violence in the media on our most vulnerable citizens. Although a correlation has been shown between violent video games and aggressive behavior, it is still unclear whether video games actually cause aggressive behavior or if the desire to play them is the result of aggressive tendencies.
There are three popular theories for how violent video games may influence behavior. The Social Learning theory assumes that the mind cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, hypothesizing that exposure to violent media primes the aggressive part of the mind to react more quickly to stimuli. Thus the viewing of violent video games makes it more likely that a person will react aggressively in a given situation. Early meta-reviews of the research on violent video games reported small but significant effect sizes for violent video games on aggressive behavior. But critics bring up several flaws that make the findings look rather weak. First off, the authors in these studies did not cite papers that support the opposite view despite these papers’ existence. Others question why the APA released a resolution on violent video games since the effect size for violent video games on aggression was lower than that of television. Other critics cite publication bias and the use of poor measures for aggression.
The catharsis hypothesis posits that aggression is a natural biological drive requiring occasional release. External influences like the desire to mate sometimes may prime aggression, but the general cause for aggression is biological adaptation. If the hypothesis is true, aggression may be displaced through activities such as sports or video games. However, one problem for this theory is that it cannot explain why some studies show that video games’ influence on aggression decrease after long-term exposure. At least one study has showed that young boys feel calmer, less aggressive, and less angry after playing violent video games. This indicates that the catharsis theory is unlikely to be true; rather, video games are a leisure activity that helps cope with stress.
The mood management theory suggests that people choose media to fit their current mood with the goal of improving it. And studies have shown that people who are depressed or regretful are more likely to choose violent media. But how could media violence help elevate one’s mood? It is thought that violent video games help people come to terms with their emotions by asserting control and power over others in the virtual world. Some of the strongest precursors to depression have been feelings of helplessness or lack of goal directedness. It might be that successes over video game characters allow players to feel empowered.
Given the mood management theory, the big question is whether those who use violent video games to alleviate their depression are likely to practice the same behavior in the real world when not in front of the television. There are reasons to think it may not be the case. One study showed that not only was there no direct link between randomized video game play and aggressive behavior, but those who played violent video games for a long time actually saw a decrease in hostile feelings or depression. Another study showed that, while violent video game sales have increased between 1996 and 2007, youth violence rates have actually decreased. Some argue that this statistic should not be used since it’s analogous to saying that because youth crime increased along with the increase in television sales, televisions must have been the cause of the increase in crime. However, this objection doesn’t quite work, for these two statistics are not analogous. It is perfectly sound to say that if violent video games are the cause of violence and more teens buy violent video games, then there should be more violence. If there’s less violence, violent video games aren’t the cause of it.
It is true that studies have showed that regular viewing of violent media leads to less emotional responsiveness and sympathy toward victims of violence in the real world. But one recent study showed that violent video games are no more likely to increase aggression than non-violent ones; rather, aggression correlates with the competitiveness of the games. There is a difference between desensitization and overt action: people may become very desensitized to victims of crime, yet never commit crimes themselves. After all, most Americans are subjected to a whole lot of violence on TV and never commit any violent crimes. It is imperative that we look into other factors besides violence in order to better understand what’s going on with these troubled teens.