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No real evidence for TV violence causing real violence

By Jonathan Freedman
University of Toronto

Jonathan Freedman

It is unfortunate that the Federal Communications Commission has recently concluded that exposure to media violence increases aggression. Despite what the report says, the scientific evidence does not support the hypothesis that exposure to media violence causes people to be aggressive. This was true in 1984 when I published my first review of this literature; it was true in 2002 when I published my comprehensive review of the research; and it is true now. Those who propose that media violence causes aggression have greatly overstated the results of the research, and have generally ignored findings that contradict their views.

Moreover, as weak as the evidence is for an effect on aggression, it is virtually nonexistent for an effect on real violence. The FCC cites the surgeon general’s 2001 report on youth violence to support the view that exposure to television violence causes aggression (in the short run). However, the FCC does not seem to accept the surgeon general’s clear conclusion that exposure to media violence is not a risk factor for real violence. This picking and choosing of what to cite is a major weakness in the latest FCC report.

The FCC suggests that the type of violence portrayed and the outcomes of that violence determine how strong the effect is on aggression. I repeat, the research does not indicate any effect on aggression regardless of the type of violence. It is also important to note that there is no evidence that one kind of portrayal of violence, including whether the violence is punished or not, rewarded or not, legitimate or not, has more affect on aggression than another. That there are such differences is mere speculation that the FCC cites as if there were evidence for it. Similarly, there is no consistent evidence that more-aggressive people are affected more than less-aggressive people. Any assertions about this are based on some people’s intuitions but not on scientific research.

The FCC report often seems to equate those who know something about the research with those who do not. For example, the report says that there has been “some dispute regarding the amount of research” on the effect of television violence. It notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics refers to more than 3,500 studies, whereas Donnerstein says there are about 250. This is not a dispute between those with equal knowledge. Everyone who knows anything about the field agrees that there are fewer than 300 studies. That the AAP says there are 3,500-plus studies simply indicates how out of touch that group is with the research.

In much of the report, including the examples just cited, the FCC does not make a sufficient distinction between people’s opinions, intuitions and musings on the one hand, and the hard scientific data on the other. This is really a shame. The FCC had the opportunity to conduct a serious, in-depth review of the research on the effect of media violence. It could have read all of the research, assessed the methodology, looked for strengths and weaknesses in every study, and evaluated the results. If the readers had been trained scientists and approached the task with open minds, this report would have been very valuable and could have provided the basis for conclusions rooted in science. Sadly, this apparently was not done.

Regrettably, the FCC commissioners seem to have relied mainly on what various experts told them about the research, and did not clearly distinguish between those who based their opinions on solid research and those who did not. Although the personal opinions of experts can be helpful, they cannot provide the scientific basis for a review.

Ultimately, it is the findings that matter — not what people think about them or tell you about them. That I happen to believe the research does not show a causal effect of media violence while others think it does is interesting, but of little or no scientific value. We do not reach scientific conclusions by consensus, but by looking at what the research shows.

It is likewise important to keep in mind that virtually all of the research and all of my statements above refer to fictional or fictionalized depictions of violence, not to images of real violence in the news or in sports. There is too little evidence to know anything about the effect of media coverage of real violence. However, I would argue that anyone who believes that exposure to fictional violence has harmful effects should surely accept that exposure to real violence must have at least the same kind of effects and probably stronger ones.

One of the glaring omissions in the report is the lack of discussion of one of the strongest arguments against the idea that media violence causes aggression. The rate of violent crime in the United States increased sharply from 1965 to 1980, and some people blamed that increase on television. The rate of violent crime leveled off until about 1992. Since that time, television continued to have violent programs, and many films contained vivid scenes of extreme violence. There was also more rap music with violent words, and, of course, video games with violent themes became extremely popular, especially among young males.

If exposure to violent media causes aggression and violent behavior, one would surely expect the rate of violent crime to have gone through the roof. Yet, since 1992 there has been a dramatic drop in violent crime, including violent crime committed by young males, to the point that it is now below what it was when television was introduced many decades ago. It seems obvious that media violence did not cause the earlier increase just as it did not cause the more recent decrease. Proponents of the notion that media violence is harmful hate to hear this mentioned and have no serious response to it. They would rather not discuss it.

To summarize: The FCC report is not based on a thorough, objective review of the scientific research. It has reached conclusions that may be politically expedient but are not justified by the scientific research. The fact is simple: there is no convincing evidence that exposure to any form of media violence causes people to become more aggressive and none at all that it causes them to commit violent crimes.

Jonathan Freedman is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He has taught at Stanford and Columbia universities and has chaired the department at the University of Toronto. As noted in the FCC report, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) supported his review of the literature published in 2002. However, he reached the same conclusions in his articles published in 1984 and in publications and talks thereafter until he was approached by MPAA in 1999.


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