April 21, 2009

Video Violence

In school the day after watching an episode of the popular TV show Kung-Fu, my friends and I would play-fight with all sorts of made-up kicks and chops. None of the kicks ever connected, and nobody ever got hurt. None of us knew any martial arts. It was the early 1970's, and within a few years, Bruce Lee movies and martial arts would become part of our culture. Did our exposure to the TV show increase our violent behavior? In some ways yes, we definitely played in imitation of the fights we saw. But none of us were newly aggressive or violent.

I just finished reading a provocative study in The Journal of Pediatrics. The researchers carefully examined 25 studies published between 1998 and 2008, which looked at the public health effects of exposure to media violence. Most of the studies they looked at (16) were with children, but there were 11 with adult subjects. Most of the studies showed that the more exposure a person had, the more violent behaviors they had.

But they found several interesting things. It turns out that many different measures of violent behavior were used. Some of the measures had never been validated scientifically, and some weren't measures of actual behaviors at all. Some used statistical analysis to see if those with violent behaviors watched more violent video. But did they choose this content because they already had violent tendencies, or did the exposure cause the violent thoughts? And will a child act on aggressive thoughts? Will the exposure to violence cause more violence in our communities?

They wanted to know how many of these studies examined directly-measured real-world violent behavior, such as a crime or hurting another person, and how many used another measure of aggression that would be more difficult to confirm. Some of the studies used ratings from teachers or even peers--these have been shown to have the least credibility in predicting actual violent behavior.

Interestingly, they found that the studies with the poorest measures of violent behavior showed the strongest relationship between violence and media exposure. Those using more certain measures of violence showed a much weaker relationship. Overall, the relationship was very weak.

Another study looked at published studies specifically examining violent behaviors, rather than surveys or questionnaires. They found that there was no general relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive or criminal behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, and several other official groups, have fully embraced the need to restrict a child's exposure to violent media. In a practical sense, this is increasingly difficult. Because of the internet, a lot of objectionable material is easily available. And because of a child's natural inclinations (see my post on Forbidden Fruit), they will have the innate interest in seeking out some of this content.

But I wonder if it really changes them. The two studies I cite in this post don't support the thinking that seeing violent media will somehow transform our children into violent people. Video games are more popular than ever, and some are shockingly violent. Some are played by children much younger than their rating would imply. But there doesn't seem to be evidence that these kids are more likely to become criminals.

Lack of harm, however, isn't the same as proof of a benefit. Even if I buy the conclusion that violence in the media isn't as harmful as it's currently made out to be, that doesn't mean I think it's a good thing. What would be best, I think, is if the kid would put down the video game and go outside to play some basketball, or ride their bicycle (with a helmet).

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?