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Doesn’t Feel Like It Is OPINION SundayReview Does Media Violence Lead to the Real Thing?
By VASILIS K. POZIOS, PRAVEEN R. KAMBAM and H. ERIC BENDER AUG. 23, 2013 Email Share Tweet Save More LOG IN EARLIER this summer the actor Jim Carrey, a star of
the new superhero movie “Kick-Ass 2,” tweeted that he
was distancing himself from the film because, in the
wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, “in all good
conscience I cannot support” the movie’s extensive and
graphically violent scenes.
Mark Millar, a creator of the “Kick-Ass” comic book
series and one of the movie’s executive producers,
responded that he has “never quite bought the notion
that violence in fiction leads to violence in real life any
more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more boy
wizards in real life.”
While Mr. Carrey’s point of view has its adherents, most
people reflexively agree with Mr. Millar. After all, the
logic goes, millions of Americans see violent imagery in
films and on TV every day, but vanishingly few become
But a growing body of research indicates that this
reasoning may be off base. Exposure to violent imagery
does not preordain violence, but it is a risk factor. We
would never say: “I’ve smoked cigarettes for a long
time, and I don’t have lung cancer. Therefore there’s no
link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.” So
why use such flawed reasoning when it comes to media
violence? Gray Matter
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See More » Olimpia Zagnoli There is now consensus that exposure to media violence
is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by
many scholars to be on par with the correlation of
exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung
cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published
between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George
Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term
effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical
violence against a person was moderate to large in
Mr. Comstock and Ms. Paik also conducted a metaanalysis of studies that looked at the correlation
between habitual viewing of violent media and
aggressive behavior at a point in time. They found 200
studies showing a moderate, positive relationship
between watching television violence and physical
aggression against another person.
Other studies have followed consumption of violent
media and its behavioral effects throughout a person’s
lifetime. In a meta-analysis of 42 studies involving
nearly 5,000 participants, the psychologists Craig A.
Anderson and Brad J. Bushman found a statistically
significant small-to-moderate-strength relationship
between watching violent media and acts of aggression
or violence later in life.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics this year,
the researchers Lindsay A. Robertson, Helena M. McAnally and Robert J. Hancox showed that watching
excessive amounts of TV as a child or adolescent — in
which most of the content contains violence — was
causally associated with antisocial behavior in early
adulthood. (An excessive amount here means more
than two hours per weekday.)
The question of causation, however, remains contested.
What’s missing are studies on whether watching violent
media directly leads to committing extreme violence.
Because of the relative rarity of acts like school
shootings and because of the ethical prohibitions on
developing studies that definitively prove causation of
such events, this is no surprise.
Of course, the absence of evidence of a causative link is
not evidence of its absence. Indeed, in 2005, The Lancet
published a comprehensive review of the literature on
media violence to date. The bottom line: The weight of
the studies supports the position that exposure to
media violence leads to aggression, desensitization
toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of
violence, particularly in children.
In fact the surgeon general, the National Institute of
Mental Health and multiple professional organizations
— including the American Medical Association, the
American Psychiatric Association and the American
Psychological Association — all consider media violence
exposure a risk factor for actual violence.
To be fair, some question whether the correlations are
significant enough to justify considering media violence
a substantial public health issue. And violent behavior
is a complex issue with a host of other risk factors.
But although exposure to violent media isn’t the only or
even the strongest risk factor for violence, it’s more
easily modified than other risk factors (like being male
or having a low socioeconomic status or low I.Q.).
Certainly, many questions remain and more research
needs to be done to determine what specific factors
drive a person to commit acts of violence and what role
media violence might play.
But first we have to consider how best to address those
questions. To prevent and treat public health issues like
AIDS, cancer and heart disease, we focus on modifying
factors correlated with an increased risk of a bad outcome. Similarly, we should strive to identify risk
factors for violence and determine how they interact,
who may be particularly affected by such factors and
what can be done to reduce modifiable risk factors.
Naturally, debate over media violence stirs up strong
emotions because it raises concerns about the balance
between public safety and freedom of speech.
Even if violent media are conclusively found to cause
real-life violence, we as a society may still decide that
we are not willing to regulate violent content. That’s our
right. But before we make that decision, we should rely
on evidence, not instinct.
Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam and H. Eric Bender are forensic psychiatrists
and the founders of the consulting group Broadcast Thought.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 25, 2013, on page SR12 of the New York edition with
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- Hayg Oshagan
- Mass Communication, media violence, NYT, Jim Carrey, VASILIS K. POZIOS
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