Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 10:

Social Learning, the Media and Violence

North America has long been concerned about the possible effects of media violence and most especially, its effects on youth. The leading concern is that media violence may cause aggressive or violent and criminal behaviour. Various scholars, political groups, and organizations have reported that there is clear and consistent evidence that violence in the media causes real-life aggression and violence. In June of 2000, a number of American medical and psychological associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, issued a joint statement about the pathological effects of entertainment violence (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000). According to these groups, evidence points to a causal association between media violence and aggressive behaviour in some children. Some scholars have evalualated the magnitude of media violence effects on violent behaviour as almost as important as gang membership (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). However, there is ongoing debate as to whether there is a causal relation between media violence and aggression. Furthermore, the importance of this relation, and whether it warrants widespread concern, is highly disputed.

Canada has not been immune from debate and concerns about the effects of media violence on attitudes, emotions, and behaviours, herein referred to as “media effects.” In 2004, the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime commissioned a report about the effects of media violence in order to develop a strategic plan to reduce exposure to media violence in Canada (Smith, 2004). The report included a number of Canadian examples of alleged “copycat” crimes, and made recommendations such as implementing a national public education campaign to “inform people about the extensive research showing harmful effects of media violence, particularly on children and youth” (Smith, 2004: 204) and encouraging survivors of violent crimes caused by entertainment products, or their families, to file civil lawsuits against the entertainment companies responsible for creating the products or distributing them (Smith, 2004). However, Canada’s stance on media effects is admittedly undecided. An earlier report prepared for the Canadian National Clearing House on Family Violence (1995) suggested that it is “at-risk” youth, a group that represents a minority of viewers, who are probably most vulnerable to media violence, and that television violence likely makes them more aggressive than they would otherwise be (Josephson, 1995). Attempts to censor violent media or media that has the potential to stoke crime (e.g., hip hop music) have also permeated the Canadian political sphere. In 2005, one of hip hop’s most prominent artists (Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 cent) was the subject of complaints by Toronto Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who called upon Immigration Minister Joe Volpe to deny Jackson entry to Canada for his planned concerts (CBC, 2005). Jackson’s songs are characterized by lyrics that have offended many, mostly because they boast of his life of crime and violence. Ultimately, however, Jackson was allowed entry.

Defining Media Violence and Aggression

Concerns about the effect of media violence on aggression are not restricted to any specific media type, and frequently apply to television, film, music, video, and computer games. Media violence has been defined as “visual portrayals of acts of physical aggression by one human or human-like character against another” (Huesmann, 2007). However, others have argued that even violent lyrics can lead to aggression (see Barongan and Nagayama Hall, 1995; Fischer and Greitemeyer, 2006). Aggression is commonly defined by psychologists as any behaviour that is intended to harm another person (Anderson et al., 2003). Aggressive behaviour may take various forms. Physical aggression includes a variety of acts ranging from shoving and pushing to more serious physical assaults, including violent acts which may cause serious injury (e.g., shooting). Less serious forms of aggression include verbal aggression (e.g., saying hurtful things to others) and relational/indirect aggression (e.g., telling lies to get a person in trouble or to harm their interpersonal relationships). Aggressive and violent behaviour is said to be caused by multiple factors which converge over time. It has been argued that influences that promote aggressive behaviour in children, such as media violence, can effectively contribute to increasingly aggressive and violent behaviour years later (Anderson et al., 2003).

Theoretical Explanations of Media Effects

To answer the question of whether media violence can lead to aggression, one must first have an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of such claims. A prominent scholar on emotion and media, Dolf Zillmann, has proposed several theories to explain why individuals seek out crime and horror/violent media. His mood management theory is self-explanatory, in that it suggests that entertainment is used to enhance or maintain positive states and to diminish or avoid negative ones (Zillmann, 1988a, 1988b; Zillmann and Bryant, 1985, as cited in Oliver, 2003). In this framework, the consumption of crime or violent media is also thought to be related to viewers’ own fears and anxieties: viewers may choose to expose themselves to their fears in a safe context as a way of coping or mastering their fears. Such a perspective is supported by a study that found that, when males were induced to think aggressive thoughts or to behave in an aggressive manner, they were more likely than other participants to select violent as opposed to non-violent media entertainment for viewing in a subsequent task (Fenigstein, 1979). This theory may partly explain why numerous studies have found associations between youths’ aggressive behaviours and their preference for media violence (which will be discussed in more detail below).

Additional theories, however, suggest that media violence can lead to aggression. The most straightforward explanation of media effects is social learning theory (Cantor, 2003). Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn from direct experience and from behaviour modelled by others, which can occur via the media. Proponents of the media effects argument, such as L. Rowell Huesmann (2007), therefore suggest that media violence has short-term and long-term effects, both of which can be accounted for by various related theories.

Theoretical Explanations of Short-Term Media-Effects

The short-term effects of media violence are largely attributed to priming, mimicry or arousal (Huesmann, 2007). Priming processes suggest that external stimulus can be inherently linked to cognition (e.g., the sight of a gun is linked to aggressive thoughts). Primed concepts thus make behaviours linked to them more likely to occur. In this perspective, media violence is purported to prime aggressive concepts, which in turn increases the likelihood of aggressive behaviour.

Even more simplistic, mimicry suggests that merely viewing media violence can lead to imitating the observed behaviour. Anecdotal evidence (e.g., copycat crimes) (Smith, 2004) and some scholarly work suggests that observing specific social behaviours effectively increases the likelihood of children behaving in the same way (Huesmann, 2007).

Arousal theory is also referred to as excitation-transfer theory, and was first proposed by Dolf Zillmann (Bryant, Roskos-Ewoldsen and Cantor, 2003). The theory is based on a number of assumptions about emotional responding. For example, emotions such as anger, fear, and sexual arousal are said to involve a substantial increase in sympathetic activation and have similar peripheral indices of arousal, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure (Cantor, 2003). According to excitation-transfer theory, physiological arousal that occurs due to an emotion decays relatively slowly and can linger on for some time after the cause of the emotion. The intensity with which an emotion is felt also depends on the level of arousal existing at the time. As individuals have relatively poor insight into why they are physiologically aroused, an individual can confuse residual arousal with a new emotion (i.e., a misattribution) which leads the individual to feel the subsequent emotion more intensely (Cantor, 2003). Applying this theory to media effects suggests that the arousal induced by media violence could linger and make people who are angered feel their anger more intensely, as well as potentially make them react more violently if provided the opportunity to retaliate against their provoker (Cantor, 2003). Although arousal theory is supported by a great deal of evidence, some research suggests that imitating media violence can occur in the absence of elevated arousal or provocation (Cantor, 2003). This led Zillmann to revise his theory to account for what he believed were long-term media effects. Zillmann’s revised theory suggested that frequent, consistent and repeated activation of particular concepts results in the chronic accessibility of such constructs. If, then, media violence makes aggression scripts (i.e., an enduring hostile mental framework) chronically accessible, individuals thus exposed may be more likely than individuals without a history of heavy exposure to media violence to engage in aggressive behaviours (Cantor, 2003). Other theories also account for purported long-term media effects.

Theoretical Explanations of Long-Term Media Effects

The long-term effects of media violence are said to be due to observational learning and to the activation and desensitization of emotional processes (i.e., desensitization theory). (Huesmann, 2007). Observational learning theory suggests that when children observe others’ behaviours and make attributions for their actions, this leads to the development of cognitive scripts. As children age, normative beliefs about appropriate social behaviours become entrenched and act as filters to limit inappropriate social behaviour. These normative beliefs and scripts are thus influenced, in part, by children’s observation of behaviours around them, including those observed in the media. The theory therefore suggests that children who are developing scripts and normative beliefs can become aggressive if they observe violent behaviours depicted in the media.

According to desensitization theory, repeated exposure to emotionally activating media leads individuals to become habituated to these emotions, and consequently leads to a decline in their negative emotional reactions (e.g., increased heart rate, perspiration) to stimuli that would ordinarily cause such reactions (e.g., violence). Desensitization itself is said to lead individuals to have the capability of acting aggressively without experiencing the negative emotions that would, under normal circumstances, circumscribe aggressive behaviour (Huesmann, 2007).

Individual Factors and the General Aggression Model

The processes outlined above represent basic learning and behavioural mechanisms and are also applicable to real-life experiences (as opposed to media-based experiences). The aforementioned theories also largely present media effects as affecting all individuals equally. However, such broad, overarching theories may be criticized as dubious given the widespread appeal of media violence and the comparatively scant number of people who engage in aggressive or violent behaviour. Some scholars have therefore proposed more attenuated media-effects theories. Craig A. Anderson (another strong proponent of the media effects argument) and his colleagues have proposed the general aggression model (GAM), which integrates many of the aforementioned theoretical models and takes into consideration developmental factors (see Anderson and Bushman, 2002a; Anderson and Carnagey, 2004; Anderson and Huesmann, 2003, as cited in Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). The model also distinguishes between variables and processes that operate in the current situation (e.g., person and situation variables) and those that exert influence over a long period of time (e.g., biological and environmental variables). The long-term variables (e.g., aggressive personality) are those that facilitate the current situation variables, which in turn directly increase aggression or decrease “normal” inhibitions against aggression. According to the GAM, media violence is both an environmental factor (i.e., due to social learning) and a situational instigator (i.e., due to its cognitive links to aggressive scripts, schemas, and beliefs).

The model also assimilates advances in developmental theories that explain individual differences in development via a risk and resilience perspective (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). Risk factors are life experiences that may put children at risk for future maladaptation, whereas resilience factors protect children from this risk exposure. Anderson and colleagues (2007) suggest that risk and resilience factors may explain why media effects affect some children to a greater degree than others, although they argue that media effects are likely a risk factor for all children. Risk factors that have been studied include marital discord, low socio-economic status, maternal psychological distress, single-parent status or divorce, low maternal education, and exposure to violence, as well as genetic risk factors for psychopathology or aggression (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). Risk factors frequently coincide and are considered by some, such as Anderson and colleagues (2007), to have cumulative effects on children’s risks for healthy development. Resilience factors include good self-regulation, close relationships with caregivers and other adults, and effective schools (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007).

It is typically acknowledged that exposure to media violence will likely not, in itself, lead to extreme and rare violent behaviour (e.g., shooting someone). However, Anderson and colleagues (2007) suggest that someone who has other risk factors for violent behaviour, and who, for example, is already verbally aggressive, may become more aggressive (e.g., push or shove others) due to media effects. They note, however, that media effects are also likely influenced by the developmental tasks children face as they mature (e.g., in infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence). For example, in middle childhood, learning social rules and norms takes on increased importance. As such, media effects may have short-term or long-term effects and may be very different depending on the age of the child.

Evidence Supporting the Media-Effects Argument

Based on these theoretical models, and on a number of studies that they and others have conducted, Anderson and colleagues (2007) have categorically stated that “exposure to media violence causes an increase in the likelihood of aggression in at least some significant proportion of the population” (25) and that, since 1975, there has been no scientific doubt that viewing violence increases aggression (Anderson and Bushman, 2002b). Based on previous reviews of the literature, they claim that the debate over media effects on violence is over. Studies using various methodologies (e.g., experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal) provide converging evidence that media violence contributes to real-life violence (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007).

Each methodological approach to the study of media effects provides its own strongpoints, while triangulation (e.g., finding similar results using different methodologies) is said to provide the strongest support for a causal association between exposure to media violence and demonstrating aggressive or violent behaviour (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). The following discussion will outline three methodological approaches to the study of media effects (e.g., experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal), highlight their usefulness for supporting media-effects arguments, and present some findings that have emerged from studies that have used these methodologies.

Experimental studies allow researchers to observe whether exposure to media violence leads to short-term increases in aggression. In these studies, participants are (typically) randomly assigned to groups who either watch a violent video or a non-violent video. In a short time period following the video viewing, which can range from a few minutes to a few days, participants’ aggressive behaviour, thoughts or emotions are observed (e.g., their aggressive free-play behaviour is recorded, the punishment they administer to others is measured, they are asked to self-report thoughts or emotions of aggression). Anderson and colleagues (2003) report that these types of studies typically find that viewing violent media content leads both children and older youth to behave more aggressively and have more aggressive thoughts and emotions. They additionally report that youth who are predisposed to being aggressive, or who have been aroused or provoked, especially demonstrate these effects. Media effects, however, can range in statistical significance and are typically categorized as being either weak/small, moderate, or strong (see Table 1 for a practical example of the categorization of effect sizes). Anderson and colleagues (2003) report that media violence effect sizes are “moderate on the average” and vary greatly depending on the outcome measure used (e.g., effect sizes are smaller for more serious outcomes than for less serious outcomes). They conclude that the average effect sizes generated by experimental studies are large enough to warrant social concern (Anderson et al., 2003).

Cross-sectional studies consist largely of surveys and are said to have provided, over the past 40 years, consistent evidence that young peoples’ physical aggression, verbal aggression, and aggressive thoughts are correlated with the amount of violent television and film they regularly watch (for reviews see Chaffee, 1972; Comstock, 1980; Eysenck and Nias, 1978; Huesmann and Miller, 1994, as cited in Anderson et al., 2003). The size of these correlations is typically small to moderate and tends to be higher for elementary-school children than for adolescents and adults (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). Surveys are said to provide support for the causal conclusions of experimental studies, in that they demonstrate that the short-term effects identified in experimental studies are also generalizable to real-life violence (Huesmann, 2007). Still, surveys do not indicate whether media violence causes aggression or whether some other factor leads the same individuals who watch more violence to behave more aggressively than their peers (Anderson et al., 2003).

Longitudinal studies are said to be especially useful in the media effects debate, as they provide grounds to discredit arguments that it is aggressive individuals who seek out violent media, as opposed to the preferred argument that violent media leads to aggression. Longitudinal studies typically measure how much violent television children watch at time A (e.g., age 7) and how much aggressive behaviour they demonstrate at time B (e.g., age 15). It is important, however, that longitudinal studies of media effects focus on the time spent viewing violent television, as opposed to total television viewing time, as the latter is said to likely underestimate the effects of violent television (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). Given the expense and difficulty of conducting longitudinal studies, they are few and far between. Still, some studies suggest that while youth media violence exposure predicts later aggression, high aggressiveness in childhood does not lead to frequent viewing of television violence later in life (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). Anderson and colleagues (2003) report that on average, the size of media effects in longitudinal studies are small to moderate, depending on the time lag (e.g., how much time elapsed between the initial and secondary measures). On the other hand, there is some evidence that suggests that more aggressive children tend to watch more violence than their less aggressive peers (Anderson et al., 2003). It has also been found that total time watching television can also predict later aggressive behaviour, even after controlling for factors such as childhood neglect and neighbourhood characteristics (Johnson, Cohen, Smailes, Kasen and Brook, 2002). The fact that the amount of time children spend watching television is predictive of aggressive behaviour may indeed suggest that other factors account for children’s television viewing time and aggressive behaviour. Still, Anderson and colleagues (2003) state that there is stronger evidence that suggests that seeing a lot of media violence is a precursor of increased aggression, even when other factors are controlled for statistically (e.g., social class, intellectual functioning, prior level of aggressiveness, parenting).

Three New Studies and Their Implications

Although for the purpose of this report only the findings of a few specific studies have been detailed, it seems important and relevant to provide some of the latest findings generated by three studies conducted by Anderson and colleagues (2007). They used the general aggression model to conduct an experimental, a cross-sectional and a longitudinal study (with a lag-time period of two to six months). Their primary focus was on the effect of playing violent video games on short-term aggressive behaviour, the correlation between violent video game exposure and aggressive behaviours among high school students, and the long-term effects of violent video games on aggression and pro-social behaviour among elementary school children. While the reported findings and conclusions tended to support Anderson and colleagues’ hypothesis (i.e., that violent video game exposure leads to increased aggression), two other important and contentious findings emerged.

First, their findings suggest that when statistically controlling for other factors that may moderate the relation between exposure to violent video games and aggression, the effect of media violence exposure on aggression becomes non-significant. In their experimental study, they observed the effects of playing violent video games on aggressive behaviour (e.g., playing a noise blast at varying levels of intensity to punish an alleged opponent). While they report that their experimental manipulation (i.e., having youth play violent video games) led to increased aggressive behaviour, controlling for other factors such as media violence exposure (the composite of television, film, and video game violence exposure), sex and age made the media violence exposure effect non-significant (i.e., media violence exposure did not predict aggressive behaviour). This finding is contrary to what one would expect based on their prior arguments (e.g., that exposure to media violence can have long-term effects that facilitate short-term effects on aggression).

They found similar results for their cross-sectional survey and longitudinal study. In the survey study, they statistically controlled for participants’ sex, normative aggressive beliefs (i.e., believing that aggressive acts are common), violence orientation (based on a composite measure of participants’ attitudes toward violence and their reported anger and hostility), and exposure to violence in television and film. They found that when controlling for these factors, exposure to media violence (in television and film) was no longer related to violent behaviour and physical aggression. Similarly, in the analyses of their longitudinal study, they found that when controlling for other factors (e.g., total amount of time spent watching television, parental involvement, hostile attribution bias, sex, race, and the amount of time elapsed between initial and secondary measures), the association between exposure to television and movie violence and physical aggression became non-significant. Note that two additional criticisms may also be lodged against their longitudinal study. First, one may criticize their characterization of this study as longitudinal because, in some cases, their initial and secondary measures occurred within the span of two months. Second, although they report that exposure to video game violence leads to physical aggression, their statistical analyses failed to provide key information (i.e., measures of how well this proposed directionality of the relation fits the data compared with alternative directionalities) that would have supported this causal relation and negated alternative interpretations (e.g., that aggression leads to playing violent video games).

Surprisingly, the authors chalk up the lack of a significant relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour to the fact that the violent video game effect seems to be outweighing the media effects (e.g., perhaps interactive media violence is more strongly related to violent behaviour than exposure to non-interactive media violence is). This seems counterintuitive, however, as applying this argument to real life would suggest that youth who experience high levels of interaction with real-life violence/aggression should similarly be non-affected by media violence. However, it seems unlikely that proponents of the media effects argument would support such a claim, as they argue that exposure to media violence is an added risk factor for real-life violence/aggression (e.g., community violence, family practices) (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). If exposure to media violence is indeed an added risk for aggression, one would expect that its effects would remain significant even after controlling for other factors. However, this is not the case. As such, these three studies suggest that exposure to media violence does not lead to increased aggression.

Other findings that emerged suggest that when statistically controlling for other factors, the ability to predict aggressive behaviour based on exposure to highly interactive media violence (e.g., violent video game exposure) substantially decreases. For example, in the cross-sectional survey study, the predictive value of exposure to violent video games for aggressive behaviour ranged from 20 per cent to just over two per cent after controlling for other factors. That is, only considering the effect of exposure to violent video games predicts 20 per cent of aggressive behaviour; however, considering other important factors reduces the amount of aggressive behaviour predicted by violent video game exposure alone to about two per cent. Similar findings emerged for the amount of violent behaviour predicted by exposure to violent video games. This suggests that purported media effects may in fact be accounted for by other factors. More importantly, Anderson and colleagues’ findings seem to suggest that, had they statistically controlled for additional factors (e.g., prior victimization, sensation seeking), the effects of media violence could have further diminished.

Based on a report by the US Department of Health and Human Services (2001), Anderson and colleagues (2007) claim that the effect of exposure to violent video games is comparable in size to other risk factors for violence in the peak years of offending (i.e., ages 15–18), such as gang membership (see Table 1). However, in reporting risk factors for violent behaviour, the US Department of Health and Human Services not only separates early risk factors (for youth aged 6–11) and late risk factors (for youth aged 12–14), they also only include exposure to television violence in the early risk factor category and report that it has an estimated small effect size (.13). Anderson and colleagues (2007) wrongly compared their video game violence effect size (.30), which was generated from a sample of youth aged 7–11 and by only controlling for sex and not for other important factors, to other factors in the late risk factor category (i.e., they should have compared it to factors in the early risk factor category). More importantly, the report itself concluded that “it [is] extremely difficult to distinguish between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence and those of other influences” (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).

The US Department of Health and Human Services (2001) also reports that, while risk factors may be additive, the timing of risk factors and the onset of violence are connected: “[S]tudies show that many youths with late-onset violence did not encounter the childhood risk factors responsible for early-onset violence. For these youths, risk factors for violence emerged in adolescence” (Huizinga et al., 1995; Moffitt et al., 1996; Patterson and Yoerger, 1997; Simons et al., 1994, as cited in US Department of Health and Human Services, 2001, Ch. 4). This is noteworthy because much of the media effects literature stipulates that many short-term effects are apparent for younger children (up to about age 10), but that findings are less consistent for older children and adolescents (i.e., it does not seem as though exposure to media violence causes violent behaviour) (Freedman, 2002; Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005). Moreover, longitudinal claims that early exposure to media violence leads to late-onset violence seem doubtful given the interaction between the timing of risk factors and violent behaviour.

Evidence Not Supporting the Media Effects Argument

In light of some of the points outlined above, many criticisms have been lodged against purported media-effects findings. Anderson and his colleagues have been criticized by others for failing to account for socio-historical facts and crime trends that do not support their claims. For example, Ferguson (2002) suggests that purported media effects are an attempt to simplify the problem of violence, and that claims that rises in violence have coincided with the prominence of television (since the 1950s) ignore other surges in violence that occurred prior to the prominence of violent media.

Other reviews of the media-effects literature suggest that, while some studies provide support for short-term media effects on attitudes and behaviour, they also often suffer from methodological problems and the findings tend to be inconsistent. Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005) reviewed five meta-analyses (i.e., analyses which statistically combine the results of several studies) and one quasi-systematic review (i.e., a review of relevant studies) of media-effects and found that there is evidence of substantial short-term effects of violent imagery in television, film, and video games on children and adolescents’ thoughts, emotions, and aggression. However, they report that the evidence is less consistent for older children and adolescents. Moreover, they found that many studies fail to establish causal associations, and that few studies have considered the importance of background factors such as family violence when assessing media effects. As such, the relative contribution of media violence to aggressive behaviour is difficult to establish (Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005).

In his encompassing systematic review of 200 studies, Canadian scholar Jonathan Freedman (2002) concludes that there is a lack of scientific support for the prevailing belief that media violence is connected to violent behaviour. Moreover, the ever-increasing popularity of violent television, films and video games has coincided with a dramatic decrease in violent crime (Freedman, 2002). Still, some believe that the availability of television in the United States and in Canada since the 1950s, and the increase in violent crime between 1960 and 1990, demonstrates a clear media violence effect. However, there is evidence that suggests that other factors such as family structure changes (e.g., higher divorce rates, more single parents), an increasing gap between rich and poor, and a sharp increase in young males due to the postwar baby boom all likely contributed to this trend (Freedman, 2002).

There is, according to Freedman, some survey research that has identified a weak but positive correlation between exposure to violent media and aggression for children up to about age ten. However, as is widely known, correlations do not mean or imply causation, and so one must assume that this relation can mean a number of things. For example, children who prefer violent programs also tend to be more aggressive than children who watch less-violent programs (Freedman, 2002). Survey research is therefore problematic because of its inability to establish causation. While longitudinal studies face the same limitations of survey research in terms of establishing causation, they do provide the ability to observe whether same-age correlations increase over time because, arguably, media exposure effects should be cumulative. In his review of longitudinal studies, Freedman finds that same-age correlations do not increase over time, and that the expected spreading apart across time also does not occur. That is, if exposure to media violence causes aggression, children who are equally aggressive at age eight, but watch different amounts of media violence, should differ in aggression at a later age. However, this is not the case.

Experimental studies that can, to some degree, overcome problems of temporal order and therefore establish causal relations, often suffer because of their weak measures of aggression (e.g., measuring aggression on a Bobo doll). Some experimental studies that use relatively good measures of aggression support a relation between exposure to media violence and behaving aggressively (28 per cent); however, 55 per cent do not, and a sizeable number present mixed findings (16 per cent) (Freedman, 2002). In addition, some experimental studies of media effects suggest that factors aside from the manipulation (e.g., viewing violent videos) may lead to increases in observed aggression. For example, a study by Leyens and Dunand (1991) found that when adult participants were led to expect to see either a violent or a non-violent movie, but did not actually see a movie, those who expected the violent movie were subsequently more aggressive than those who expected the non-violent movie. In this case, it seems as though the mere expectation of being exposed to violence can lead to short-term increases in aggressive behaviour, and that such increases are independent of actually viewing media violence.

In light of his encompassing and thorough review of the literature, Freedman argues that despite previous reviews that suggest that media violence does cause violent behaviour, a review of the literature does not support this conclusion. Moreover, he states that before a theory or hypothesis can be considered correct, the research testing it must produce “results that support it with great consistency” (Freedman, 2002: 199). His review of the literature suggests that regardless of the method used, fewer than half of the studies have found results that supported the hypothesis, implying that there is great inconsistency in the findings. In response to comparisons of media violence effects with advertising effects, Freedman suggests that there is a vast difference between the goals of these two media types. While advertising is designed to advance a specific, clear and unmistakable message (e.g., car commercials which enumerate the qualities of a specific car and urge consumers to purchase it), media violence is not meant to be persuasive, just popular. Although some argue that media violence may put forth implicit messages (e.g., that using violence to solve problems is appropriate) or provide for learning experiences, Freedman is highly skeptical of these claims given the fictional nature of the media violence that is most often under study and the frequent mixed messages that accompany these depictions.

A criticism that can be lodged against both Anderson and colleagues (2007) and Freedman (2002) is that many of the studies they cite to support their respective views of media effects are somewhat dated (i.e., from the 1960s to the mid-1990s). Many recent studies of media effects seek to identify “third factors” that may account for both youths’ consumption of violent media and aggressive behaviour (see Gallo, 2003; Kubrin, 2005; Miranda and Claes, 2004), and reviews of the literature suggest that it is important to do so (Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005). For example, Chen et al. (2006) found that sensation seeking (e.g., how much individuals like going to wild parties, doing “crazy” things just for fun, doing things on impulse) operates as a confound variable in the relation between rap music and aggressive behaviour. In their study of 1,056 college students, Chen et al. used music preference to predict aggressive behaviour. They hypothesized that rap music would be most predictive of aggressive behaviour and tested their hypothesis by controlling for other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, level of sensation seeking, and listening to music genres other than rap. They initially found that listening to rap music “often”9 significantly and positively predicted aggressive behaviour (e.g., being in a fist-fight or shoving match, being in a gang, threatening someone with a knife or gun, or attacking someone intending to seriously injure that person). However, the authors found that sensation seeking also significantly and positively predicted aggressive behaviour, and did so to a stronger degree than listening to rap music. Moreover, they found that individuals with higher levels of sensation seeking were more likely to listen to music genres that were positively associated with aggression. To address the potential relation between sensation-seeking and aggressive behaviour, the authors added sensation-seeking to their analyses and found that the association between music preference and aggressive behaviour had significantly decreased. The authors concluded that sensation-seeking is likely a factor that contributes to (and obfuscates) the relation between aggressive behaviours and music preference, as it seems to mediate such a relation. One may therefore hypothesize that third, fourth and fifth factors frequently operate in reported media-effects findings. Given these and other findings, researchers should make concerted efforts to control for other factors when making claims about media effects. Similarly, reviews of the literature should consider whether other important factors were controlled for when assessing media effects.

Research about media effects on youth has also led to focusing on the potential harmful effects of violent video games. A review of the literature conducted by Bensley and Van Eenwyk (2001) suggests that the role of video games in violence and aggression is limited in either size or scope. Findings are not supportive of a major public health concern about violent video games’ potential to lead to real-life violence. The authors report that for young children (ages about 4 to 8), there is some evidence of increased aggressive free-play behaviour following playing violent video games. However, results are inconsistent and inconclusive for teens and college-aged individuals. Their review may be criticized, however, as it included measures of aggression that have, in other places, been reprehended (e.g., measures of aggression against a Bobo doll) (see Freedman, 2002). Still, when considering three other reviews and their own, the authors conclude that there are major gaps in the existing research (e.g., lack of well-controlled, randomized research), which effectively prohibit claims that violent video games lead to real-life violence.

Explaining Concerns about Media Violence

Despite a lack of substantial findings, politicians and scholars alike scapegoat the media as a cause of violent behaviour. Some researchers have suggested that individuals’ beliefs about media effects on behaviour may be due to the “third-person effect.” The third-person effect suggests that individuals tend to believe that others are more affected by negative media messages than they themselves are (Hoffner et al., 2001). This effect is couched within attribution theory, which posits that individuals attempt to make sense of their environment by identifying underlying causes of behaviour. In this process, individuals tend to overestimate dispositional causes of behaviour for others (e.g., personality, traits) and situational factors for themselves (e.g., social pressures) (Hoffner et al., 2001). For example, McLeod, Eveland and Nathanson (1997) found that when presented violent and misogynistic hip hop lyrics, individuals perceived others as being more affected by these messages than they themselves were. Furthermore, this perception correlated positively with supporting censorship of such lyrics (even when controlling for factors such as political conservatism).

There is also evidence that suggests that third-person effects may especially be present when people consider the potential effects of the media on low-status individuals (Grier and Brumbaugh, 2007). Literature on status suggests that individuals with a low social status, indicated by factors such as socio-economic status, ethnicity, age and gender, tend to be seen as less competent than high status individuals (Conway, Pizzamiglio and Mount, 1996; Conway and Vartanian, 2000; Ridgeway and Correll, 2004). Similarly, third-person effects tend to favour downward comparisons to others, in which the other person is seen as less competent than the self, thus sustaining positive self-images (Hoffner et al., 2001). Furthermore, the more distant one feels from the third person, the more one is prone to stereotype that person as likely to be influenced by the media (particularly when media-effects knowledge is primed) (Duck and Mullin, 1995, as cited in Hoffner et al., 2001). In this respect, certain social groups may be especially vulnerable to third-person effects. Not surprisingly, and more importantly, Hoffner and colleagues (2001) found that people believe that children are more likely than adults are to be influenced by media effects.

The third-person effect may partly explain why scholars, politicians and many individuals believe that media violence causes real-life violence. That these concerns mostly centre around youth is further explained by the fact that youth tend to occupy a low social status and are considered to be relatively incompetent (e.g., in discerning media messages). Furthermore, there is reason to believe that salience is also related to the third-person effect. Hoffner and colleagues (2001) suggest that when considering the causes of societal problems, the effects of television violence may be more salient than other factors, such as poverty and drug use, which many people have not experienced personally. Combined, these factors emphasize why, when pressed for explanations for youths’ occasional aggressive and violent behaviours, many are quick to turn to the media.

Concluding Remarks

This review is meant to provide the reader with a holistic understanding of the media effects debate. First, one must consider the theoretical models meant to explain media effects, which are essentially two-part. While some theories suggest that media violence leads to the social learning of violent behaviour, other theories suggest that entertainment is typically used to manage moods, and that those who are aggressive actively seek out violent media content. A review of some of the research on media effects suggests that there is some support for the social learning perspective. Small media effects have been observed in laboratory settings, and cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have revealed some associations between consuming violent media and behaving aggressively or violently; however, the findings do not provide clear and consistent evidence that media violence causes aggressive and violent behaviour. At best, one could surmise that there is an association between media violence and aggression. However, claims that this association is causal are met with serious criticisms. Many studies that are said to support this causal association are fraught with methodological problems, such as weak measures of aggression and failing to consider other important factors when measuring the effects of media violence.

Theories that do not suggest that there is a causal relation between exposure to media violence and aggression or violent behaviour are also supported by substantial evidence. For example, research is said to generally support the notion that the enjoyment of media violence is highest for viewers who possess characteristics associated with aggression (Oliver, Kim and Sanders, 2006). Social learning theories are further plagued by research that suggests that the developmental stages of children greatly influence the impact of media violence, and that media violence does not have the cumulative effects one may expect. For example, research on the frightening effects of media suggests that the element that frightens children changes as they mature. With increasing maturity, children respond less to the perceptible characteristics of the media (e.g., the imagery and appearance) and respond more to the conceptual aspects of the media (Cantor, 2006). If such is the case for the frightening effects of media, one might hypothesize that the effects of media violence are likely similar. As such, the alleged underlying messages of violent content may not emphatically reach youth until they are somewhat older, effectively casting doubt on claims that young children learn long-term social messages from media violence.

Despite the lack of consistent support for a causal relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive or violent behaviour, this review has shown that there have been persistent and substantial attempts by various scholars and organizations to categorically state that media violence causes aggression and violence (even when substantial evidence suggests the contrary). Research on the third-person effect suggests that individuals are inclined to believe that the media can have effects on viewers, especially if these viewers are children, due to factors such as the salience of media violence and downward comparisons to others. Combined, these factors provide a narrative for the widespread misattributions of real-life violence and crime to media violence.

In concluding, the author offers the following insightful remarks of P. Vorderer, F. Steen and E. Chan (2006), which the author believes illustrate some of the most important questions those considering the potential effects of media violence should bear in mind while pursuing such enquiries:

When we approach entertainment as an experience that is sought after and enjoyed, we encounter the enduring questions of its psychological cause. Why do human beings, across a range of different cultures and historical periods, seek out and enjoy the experience of entertainment? Why do they select and create certain types of situations-and not others- to entertain themselves? Why do they seek entertainment so often, for such long periods of time, and in so many different situations and settings? To ask these questions is to adopt the perspective that entertainment is a response to a certain set of opportunities rather than a feature of a particular media product itself [emphasis added] (Vorderer, Steen and Chan, 2006: 3).


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9 Note that “often” was not specifically defined and the respondents’ subjective assessments were relied upon.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews