Major new research into the effects of violent movies and video games has found no long-term links with real-life violence.
The methodology of previous laboratory studies, which have used spikes in short-term aggressive behaviour to suggest a causal relationship between screened and real-life violence have also been questioned in the report, published in the Journal of Communication.
Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida, carried out two studies into media violence. In the first, his team correlated US homicide rates between 1920 and 2005, with instances of violence depicted in motion pictures. Although there was evidence of a moderate correlation between a rise in screened and real-life violence during the 1950s, this reversed throughout the rest of the century, with instances of screen violence inversely related to homicide rates in the 1990s.
In the second study, consumption of violent video games was measured against youth violence rates in the previous 20 years. The study concluded that playing video games coincided with a fall in violent crime perpetrated by those in the 12-17 age group.
The research paper also questions the validity of previous studies into links between real-life and screened violence, which have largely relied on laboratory testing. The ways in which aggressive behaviours have been explored and measured in the past, with test subjects watching short clips of violent content and then carrying out specified activities, may well have led to results which have little relevance outside of the laboratory environment, the study suggests.
“The degree to which laboratory studies faithfully capture the media experience is also debatable,” writes Ferguson. “Many such studies provide exposure to only brief clips of media, rather than full narrative experiences, in which violence exposure is outside of a narrative context. The resultant aggressive behaviors are also outside a real-world context, in which the aggression appears to be sanctioned by the researchers themselves, who provide the opportunity for aggression.
“The close pairing of clips of media violence with sanctioned aggression asks may also set up demand characteristics that may explain the small effects typically seen from such studies. The degree to which such studies, regardless of their inconsistent results, can be generaliSed to societal aggression remains debatable.”
The possibility of a link between real-life and screened violence has been a source of huge controversy since the 1970s. The “video nasties” scare of the early 1980s led to the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which saw dozens of horror movies denied video classification. Since then, a series of mass shootings in the US have been linked to violent movies and video games. The perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School killings, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were said to have been obsessed with violent games such as Doom, while Anders Behring Breivik claimed to have played the military shooter Call of Duty in preparation for the killing of 77 people in Norway in 2011. In January 2013, Obama called for research into the effects of violent games after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut the previous December.
However, despite years of research, definitive links have not been found, partially because laboratory tests into aggression can only measure short-term aggressive reactions, and partly due to the myriad other psychological and sociocultural stimuli that play a part in violent behaviour.
“Society has a limited amount of resources and attention to devote to the problem of reducing crime,” said Ferguson in a press statement. “There is a risk that identifying the wrong problem, such as media violence, may distract society from more pressing concerns such as poverty, education and vocational disparities and mental health. This research may help society focus on issues that really matter and avoid devoting unnecessary resources to the pursuit of moral agendas with little practical value.”
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th November 2014 11.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010