Does violence in the media produce violence in the real world?
Whether violence depicted in the media causes violence in the real world has been a topic of debate for a number of years. Nowadays the argument seems more prevalent as different types of media are all around us every moment of the day, along with ever increasing reports of violence around the world, both abroad and at home. Violence in the news, television and film, along with violence in video games are usually the main areas of focus when it comes to this debate. Sociologists tend to lean towards the view that media reflects society, rather than producing behaviours that are not already established within society. However, it is also argued that exposure to violent media can cause violent behaviour in the real world. Those who prefer a restricted meda would support the view that media violence does produce violence in the real world, for obvious reasons. In Graeme Burton's book Media and Society: Critical Perspectives (2010), he says,
' Some research has suggested that childhood viewing of violence may be related to aggressive behaviour in adulthood. However, the evidence is not conclusive, given the range of socializing influences that may produce such an effect.'
As media influences society in a number of ways, it is easy to follow on from that by saying media violence influences people to behave violently. While this sometimes may be correct there are a number of arguments against this line of thought.
It is important to establish the main arguments for either side of this debate when asking the question 'does violence in the media produce violence in the real world?' Firstly, some argue that because a certain violent crime has been perpetrated, the perpetrator has been influenced by the fact that they happen to be a fan of a certain violent video game, film, TV programme etc. This argument fails to take into account the fact that the majority of 'fans' of violent media do not become violent. This argument also encourages another question to be asked; do people consume violent media because they are violent? Or does exposure to violent media make them violent? If the answer to the first question is yes, then violence in the media does not cause violence in the real world as people are already violent before they are exposed to violent media. If the answer to the first question is no, which seems more likely, then there has to be other causes for people to want to consume violent media such as enjoyment and the 'thrill' of being frightened or shocked by the violence. If the answer to the second question is yes, then obviously violence in the media does produce violence in the real world. If the answer to the second question is no, then other unrelated causes are, in general, behind violence in the real world.
When this topic is discussed in the mainstream, violent video games seem to be the focus of the debate, ignoring violence on television, especially news programmes. This is seemingly because of the numerous cases of violence which have been blamed on violent video games. One case in the United States, where two students killed 13 other students in 1999, blames the violent video game Doom for the students' violent behaviour as they were fans of the game and had apparently played it hours before the massacre took place (Massey, 2009). More recently, the Sandy Hook massacre has been blamed by some on violent video games and indeed one town in Connecticut plans to 'turn in their violent video games, which will later be broken and ultimately incinerated' (Tassi, 2013). The accusation that violent video games are to blame in these situations brings us back to the question; do people consume violent media because they are violent or does violent media make them violent?
While considering these questions it is also important to discuss another aspect of violent mass shootings which have been blamed on violent video games. Psychiatric drugs arguably have a large impact on the violent nature of a number of perpetrators in the notorious mass murders which have taken place in schools, cinemas etc.
'A review from the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights International reveals there have been 124,320 advers drug reactions in connection with antidepressants that have been reported...Side effects listed include: suicidal ideation/behaviour (completed suicides, suicide attempts), aggression, hallucinations, self-harm, thoughts of killing others, hostility, physical assault, homicide and violence-related behaviours.' (Bragdon, 2012.)
According to the same article, the Columbine High School shooters were on some sort of psychiatric drugs at the time of the shooting, prescription drugs were found among the belongings of the Virginia Tech shooter and also 'Kip Kinkel was withdrawing from Prozac and had been prescribed Ritalin when he murdered his mother and stepfather and then shot 22 classmates...' (Bragdon, 2012.) The Columbine School massacre is notoriously blamed on the video game Doom and so-called 'angry' music such as Marilyn Mason, however the fact that the shooters were on psychiatric drugs which have known side effects of 'homicide and violence related behaviours' indicates that the drugs, rather than the violent media, although possibly a combination of both, is to blame for the violent behaviour of the shooters. As the shooting at Virginia Tech is also blamed somewhat on video games and the shooter was on prescribed psychiatric drugs, it seems as if these psychiatric drugs have a large part in a person becoming violent. The reported side effects of the drugs and the combination between these drugs and the exposure to violent media seem to be the cause of the unnatural behaviour of the perpetrators.
However, that does not mean to say that violence in the media produces violence in the real world. There is a vast majority of people who enjoy horror films, violent TV programmes and video games but do not go out and commit atrocities such as the ones mentioned. This indicates that the psychiatric drugs play a major part in producing violence, or at least they have in these cases. While some horror movie fans or violent video gamers may become violent because of the media they consume, it is not appropriate to connect every act of violence to violence in the media.
Another plausible cause for violent behaviour is exposure to real life violence, especially when an individual is young and impressionable. It can be argued that if a person were to see real life violence around him (or her) such as domestic abuse from a young age, this can impact negatively (or indeed positively) on the child's adult behaviour. A negative side effect could be that exposure to a large amount of real life violence may produce an attitude in later life which sees violence as normal and acceptable. Bill Clinton, former president of the United States once said:
'The more children see of violence, the more numb they are to the deadly consequences of violence.'
This suggests that children will gradually see violence as a normal part of life if they are continuously exposed to either violent images or violence in the real world. It also suggests that a sense of apathy towards violence grows as an individual becomes more accustomed to seeing violence on a consistent basis. This doesn't necessarily support the argument that media violence produces violence in the real world, rather that it can produce an acceptance towards violence if there is a constant exposure to it, both in the media and the real world. However a positive side effect to exposure to violence at a young age could be that it deters an individual from violent behaviours in later life as they realise the consequences of violence.
Despite this view, it can be argued vehemently that evidence for violent media producing real life violence is inconclusive. Graem Burton cites Buckingham (2003) in his book Media and Society: Critical Perspectives. Buckingham states,
'Despite decades of research, the proof of a connection between violent television and aggressive behaviour is at best weak...'
If it is the case that violent media produces violence in the real world, then logically the rates of violent crimes should be in accordance with the amount of media violence, and as media in all shapes and forms is increasingly violent, the number of violent crimes should rise with that trend. However, according to the Office for National Statistics (2012):
'The latest police recorded violence figures show a reduction in volume of 7 percent...'
CNN in the United States also shows the levels of violent crime decreasing:
'Violent crime in the United States fell for the fifth consecutive year.' (Frieden, 2012.)
As the levels of violent crime have decreased in recent times when violence in the media is still at a significant level, this supports the view that violence in the media does not produce violence in the real world, even though individual cases of violence are often blamed on media violence.
Even though the media does affect society in different ways it is not proven that violence in the media produces violence in the real world and seems unlikely due to the simple fact that many people who 'enjoy' violent media are not violent themselves. Now that this is established, it is important to discuss why individuals do become violent, whether it is because of a poor upbringing or unfortunate circumstances where violence has been seen as acceptable, whether it is due to psychological problems or the use of psychiatric prescription drugs which have side effects including thoughts of killing others, aggression and suicidal and homicidal tendencies or indeed because of exposure to violent material combined with any of the above reasons for violence. There is not one sole reason for violence in the real world. It is however possible that violent media can influence an already violent person into committing violent acts, although as sociologists would argue, media does not produce new behaviours which are not already established in an individual or society as a whole.
The question 'does violence in the media produce violence in the real world' is one which is too large and with too many possible answers to condense into a 'yes' or 'no' answer. It is more appropriate to suggest that in some cases media violence may well produce violence in the real world because a constant exposure to violence may well disrupt any natural aversion to it. However, in other situations there are a vast range of causes of violence such as the ones listed above. Following on from this, the mainstream media concerned with newspapers and news programmes sometimes seems to be obsessed with putting the blame of violence onto either violent video games and/or 'aggressive' music. The complete lack of acknowledgment that violent and distressing images on the news and in newspapers can have just as negative an effect on individuals as an exposure to other forms of violent media shows that these news outlets do not actually believe that violent media produces violence in the real world. Instead they produce a scapegoat to appease 'consumers' who want a definite cause and answer instead of accepting the fact that there might not be one complete cause for violence in the real world.
Consequently, in general, violence in the media overwhelmingly does not cause violence in the real world, however in some cases violence in the media can influence a person to act out premeditated violence.
© Copyright 2016 Stuart Pirie. All rights reserved.