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Violent media and aggression

How the research into violent media is carried out, and what conclusions are being drawn.

By Christian Barnes-Young

There is a tendency among gamers, and some parents, to dismiss scientific research that indicates a link between exposure to violent media and aggression. Some gamers provide anecdotal evidence to refute the research: "I've been gaming all my life, and I'm not aggressive." Others state that researchers are biased against the gaming industry: "Who paid for that study?" Some just consider the entire topic stupid and move on. When the subject gets media coverage, the two sides of the argument are typically represented for a few minutes of point-counterpoint, and parents are left even more confused. Maybe that's why retail employees have accounts of parents who buy Mature-rated material for their children with the explanation "It's just a video game."

The scientific community has been researching the impact of violent media, including video games, on aggression for decades.

The scientific community has been researching the impact of violent media (including video games) on aggression for decades. During this time, researchers have become more confident that a relationship does exist between violent media and aggressive behavior and that the strength of this relationship has increased since the research was begun (and gaming has become more popular). Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson at the University of Iowa wrote in 2001, "Since 1975, the scientific confidence and statistical magnitude of this link have been clearly positive and have consistently increased over time." The relationship is fairly simple and goes like this: With exposure to violent media, individuals are more likely to think, feel, and behave aggressively. Now the size of the impact that violent media has on aggression has traditionally been described as weak; however, video games are reported to have the strongest relationship with aggression among the various forms of media due to the active involvement of the player. In other words, because video game players actively control game content, as opposed to passively watching it, the experience has a greater impact on the player.

Parents may be asking how exactly are these studies completed that find this relationship between playing violent video games and aggression. One method employed is to gain a measure of exposure to violent media (e.g., time playing violent video games) and a measure of aggression (e.g., self-report of aggressive thoughts). The researcher then computes a statistic known as a correlation to determine if there is a relationship between the measures that would not be expected to occur by chance. This type of research can indicate if a significant relationship is present and the strength, or magnitude, of the relationship; however, correlations cannot determine that one variable created the change in the other variable. A more robust method of study involves experiments, which are completed in laboratory settings where participants are randomly assigned to either a group that plays violent games or a group that plays nonviolent games. Following a period of gaming, the researchers attempt to measure aggression in some way. Some studies assessed the frequency of aggressive thoughts. Other studies looked at emotional characteristics, like irritability and anger, while other researchers actually provided the opportunity to behave aggressively. For example, researchers at the University of Amsterdam in 2007 told participants that they could blast the loser of a game with noise loud enough to inflict permanent hearing loss (no one was actually blasted). As predicted, participants who had recently played a violent video game inflicted more loud noises on their "partners," even though they were not provoked and were aware they may be causing hearing loss. The benefit of the experimental method is that it allows the researcher to infer a causal relationship: Because participants are similar aside from the group they are assigned to (playing a violent or nonviolent game), any difference on the measure of aggression should be due to whether they played a violent or nonviolent game.

How, exactly, are violence and gaming related? Scientific studies have found that exposure to violent media can result in short-term increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings of irritability or anger, and aggressive behavior. Long-term effects of exposure to violent media include an increased prevalence of delinquency. The long-term effects should not be interpreted as a causal relationship — no experiments have exposed participants to violent media for years to see what happens. Another way of interpreting the long-term effects is to say that individuals identified as delinquent have a greater likelihood of having had long-term exposure to violent media than those kids who are not considered delinquents. It is unclear if violent media results in delinquency or if delinquents are drawn toward violent media.

The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.

There is also a growing body of research that suggests individuals with a predisposition for sensation seeking, or risk taking, are more likely to be influenced by violent media. Other researchers have identified certain personality characteristics that may predispose a person to be aggressive and more susceptible to the influence of violent media. The research also suggests that playing violent video games potentially has the greatest impact on aggression in 11-13 year-old males. With these characteristics identified, researchers are able to control for them in their studies, and findings still demonstrate that exposure to violent media increases aggression.

In general, the scientific community is well-satisfied that it has demonstrated that violent media increases aggression in gamers. The body of research led six major professional organizations — the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association — to sign a joint statement on the topic in 2000. The authors concluded:

At this time, well over 1,000 studies ... point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.

Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life.

The statement added, "We in no way mean to imply that entertainment violence is the sole, or even necessarily the most important factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence." Since the release of this joint statement, and with further investigation, researchers are more confident that a relationship between violence in the media and aggression exists. Anderson and his colleagues wrote in 2003, "The scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over."

There is also a growing body of research that suggests individuals with a predisposition for sensation seeking, or risk taking, are more likely to be influenced by violent media.

Given the overwhelming evidence that violent media increases aggression, should parents throw out their gaming systems? None of the research completed to date suggests that playing violent video games will, by itself, cause someone to behave violently. There are many factors that lead to aggression — exposure to violent media has been identified as one with a mild to moderate effect. One reason violent media gets so much attention is that it is a fairly easy and inexpensive factor to address. If parents are concerned about their children's tendency to be aggressive, it is not too difficult to choose nonviolent sources of entertainment. Moreover, video games cost about the same, whether the game contains violence or not.

If violent video games can lead to an increase in aggression, what about nonviolent games? Peter Fischer and colleagues at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, have recently begun to look at how nonviolent games influence behavior. Their study found that a history of playing racing games was associated with an increase in traffic accidents and a decrease in cautious driving. It was also reported that playing racing games increased risk-taking behavior in computer-simulated critical traffic situations. It appears that the scientific community is satisfied that violent video games impact thoughts, emotions, and behavior and now research is branching out to study the influence of nonviolent games.

Parents should also be aware that recent work by a professor at Texas A&M International University is critical of methodologies, theories, and conclusions of the majority of research on the effects of media violence on aggression. Christopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist with a focus on criminal behavior, believes the exposure to violent media's effect size is much smaller than has been reported in the majority of research. He has written about a bias within the scientific community to publish articles that suggest a relationship between violent media and aggressive behavior. Dr. Ferguson proposes that a genetic predisposition to behave aggressively, exposure to family violence, and having an aggressive personality, are much better predictors of violent behavior than exposure to violent media. The professor does not leave exposure to violent media completely out of his theoretical model: Exposure to violent media is included in the model that Dr. Ferguson supports as a "stylistic catalyst." In The Catalyst Model of Violent Crime, playing a violent video game will not cause violent behavior but it can influence how violent acts are carried out. Dr. Ferguson's stance seems to be that of a cautious voice against alarmist reactions to questionable research with variable effects.

Looking forward, researchers will continue to investigate the nature of how the relationship between violent media and aggressive behavior actually works and ways to potentially intervene. Overall, however, studies suggest that the most effective method to combat the aggressive effects of violent media is parental involvement, and the gaming industry took steps in the right direction by implementing a rating system to help inform this before a system was forced upon it.

Christian Barnes-Young is an avid gamer and clinical consultant for the Continuum of Care, a South Carolina state agency that serves children with severe emotional disturbance.

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Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/10/2011:
"This is a good report, its nice to see one that supports evidence for both sides of the arguement. I personally believe that the worst cases of increased aggression (or lack of driving care for example) stem from games that are the most realistic. Playing Gran Turismo for hours is far more likely to make a person feel as though they can drive that way in a real car because it is a highly accurate representation of real life and so it becomes difficult for players to seperate fantasy from reality. I do not beleive that playing violent videogames increases aggression in the long term, no study ever made has shown any kind of increase in long-term behaviour from violent media. All the studies that exposed participants to violent media and then tested them in someway showed an increased short-term aggression, this was usually gone by the next day and gone completly by the next week. But the question still remains as to what prolonged exposure to violent media has on us, we are a! ll exposed to violence in some way, shape or form everyday, not just through TV and Videogames."
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