Media Violence

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On April 20, 1999, two teenagers armed with semiautomatic weapons and explosives killed thirteen people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The teenagers, both students at Columbine, then took their own lives. The high school massacre in Littleton came in the wake of other school shootings. In 1997 in Pearl, Mississippi, a sixteen-year-old killed two students while in 1998 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, two middle school students killed four students and a teacher and wounded fifteen others. Sadly, the carnage did not end with the Littleton shooting. Just a month after Columbine, a fifteen-year-old wounded six students at a high school in Georgia; in May 2000, a seventh-grader shot a teacher at a Florida middle school; and in March 2001, a fifteen-year-old boy opened fire at a high school in Santee, California, killing two students and injuring thirteen others.

This seeming epidemic of school shootings has raised the level of public debate about a number of issues. Since all of the killers used firearms, many blamed the school shootings on the widespread availability of guns. Because most of the shooters were unpopular boys who had been rejected and in some cases tormented by their schoolmates, others have focused on the problem of bullying and peer-to-peer abuse in America’s schools. However, since guns and bullying have always been problems with many of America’s troubled youth, others looked beyond the obvious, pointing an accusing finger at the level of violence in the media. Could higher levels of violence in the media be what’s pushing some troubled students to commit violence?

What the research shows
The idea that media violence may cause some people, particularly young people, to commit violence is not new. Parents have been concerned about violence on television almost since the medium’s inception, and researchers have been studying television’s effects on viewers for nearly as long. A 1993 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) summarized the research this way:

There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior. Children’s exposure to violence in the mass media, particularly at young ages, can have harmful lifelong consequences.

The APA stopped short of stating that media violence causes aggressive or violent behavior. Instead the consensus among the scientific community is that there is a correlation between the two. In his book The Case for Tele- vision Violence, communication professor Jib Fowles points out that “correlational studies can never escape the fact that correlations are not causes.” He cites researcher David Buckingham, who notes that “one may well discover that children who are violent watch a lot of television violence, but this does not prove that violent television causes real-life violence.”

This problem has plagued research on media violence. In a 2001 report on youth violence, Surgeon General David Satcher did not include media violence as a major causal factor in youth violence. When asked why not, he explained that “it was extremely difficult to distinguish between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence and those of other influences.” In other words, it is almost impossible for researchers to determine whether a given individual is violent because of media violence or because of other factors, such as substance abuse, childhood trauma, or having violent and/or antisocial parents.

Common sense
Therefore critics of media violence often emphasize the APA’s second statement—that children’s exposure to media violence “can have harmful lifelong consequences.” In the debate over the Columbine school shootings, for example, the idea that a single violent film or video game made Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into killers seems ludicrous. Yet the idea that a lifetime of violent films and video...
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