On April 20, 1999, two teenagers armed with semiautomatic weapons and explosives killed thirteen people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The teenagers, both students at Columbine, then took their own lives. The high school massacre in Littleton came in the wake of other school shootings. In 1997 in Pearl, Mississippi, a sixteen-year-old killed two students while in 1998 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, two middle school students killed four students and a teacher and wounded fifteen others. Sadly, the carnage did not end with the Littleton shooting. Just a month after Columbine, a fifteen-year-old wounded six students at a high school in Georgia; in May 2000, a seventh-grader shot a teacher at a Florida middle school; and in March 2001, a fifteen-year-old boy opened fire at a high school in Santee, California, killing two students and injuring thirteen others.
This seeming epidemic of school shootings has raised the level of public debate about a number of issues. Since all of the killers used firearms, many blamed the school shootings on the widespread availability of guns. Because most of the shooters were unpopular boys who had been rejected and in some cases tormented by their schoolmates, others have focused on the problem of bullying and peer-to-peer abuse in America’s schools. However, since guns and bullying have always been problems with many of America’s troubled youth, others looked beyond the obvious, pointing an accusing finger at the level of violence in the media. Could higher levels of violence in the media be what’s pushing some troubled students to commit violence?
What the research shows
The idea that media violence may cause some people, particularly young people, to commit violence is not new. Parents have been concerned about violence on television almost since the medium’s inception, and researchers have been studying television’s effects on viewers for nearly as long. A 1993 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) summarized the research this way:
There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior. Children’s exposure to violence in the mass media, particularly at young ages, can have harmful lifelong consequences.
The APA stopped short of stating that media violence causes aggressive or violent behavior. Instead the consensus among the scientific community is that there is a correlation between the two. In his book The Case for Tele- vision Violence, communication professor Jib Fowles points out that “correlational studies can never escape the fact that correlations are not causes.” He cites researcher David Buckingham, who notes that “one may well discover that children who are violent watch a lot of television violence, but this does not prove that violent television causes real-life violence.”
This problem has plagued research on media violence. In a 2001 report on youth violence, Surgeon General David Satcher did not include media violence as a major causal factor in youth violence. When asked why not, he explained that “it was extremely difficult to distinguish between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence and those of other influences.” In other words, it is almost impossible for researchers to determine whether a given individual is violent because of media violence or because of other factors, such as substance abuse, childhood trauma, or having violent and/or antisocial parents.
Therefore critics of media violence often emphasize the APA’s second statement—that children’s exposure to media violence “can have harmful lifelong consequences.” In the debate over the Columbine school shootings, for example, the idea that a single violent film or video game made Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into killers seems ludicrous. Yet the idea that a lifetime of violent films and video games may have contributed to their emotional instability seems like common sense. As The Nation’s Katherine Pollitt reasons, “whether or not you can connect this cultural effluvia [media violence] to specific acts of violence in a one-onone causal way, thousands of hours of it can’t be good for the soul.”
This is the approach that the 1994–1997 National Television Violence Study took: Instead of trying to prove that television violence causes reallife violence, the study focused on other harmful effects associated with viewing television violence. Among these effects, according to the study are:
1) “Learning of aggressive behaviors and attitudes.” Media violence may not make children violent, but it may teach them that violence is a normal way of solving problems.
2) “Desensitization to violence.” This is the classic problem that horror movies face: Violence and gore may shock viewers initially, but they eventually become used to it. And heavy viewers of media violence may be less shocked by real-life violence.
3) “Fear of being victimized by violence.” Constant exposure to violence in the media may lead people to believe that violence is everywhere and that they should be afraid. Researcher George Gerbner has described this as “Mean World Syndrome.”
The pervasiveness of television
Researchers have long focused on television violence because television is the most pervasive format for media violence. Television has provided American children access to endless hours of increasingly violent programming that simply did not exist before the 1950s. Many schoolchildren spend more time watching television than they do doing homework or playing with friends. Because of this, it has been estimated that the av- erage American will witness approximately 20,000 simulated television deaths in his or her lifetime. The sheer pervasiveness of television leads Mary Ann Watson, the author of Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience Since 1945, to conclude that saying “if you don’t like what’s on TV, just turn it off” is like saying “if you’re troubled by air pollution, just stop breathing.”
In 1996, the argument that television violence is too pervasive led Congress to pass the Telecommunications Act, which required television broadcasters to develop a voluntary ratings system for TV programs. The act also required television manufacturers to include the V-chip, an electronic device that allows parents to block out any program with a particular rating, in all new television sets made after 2000.
After the Columbine school shootings, attention shifted from television to other media, including movies, music, and video games. Movies have always been more violent than television, in part because movies are seen as a medium to which children have less access. In the 1990s, however, several movies were singled out in the media violence debate. Many critics felt that Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 movie Pulp Fiction glorified the hitman lifestyle of its main characters. After Columbine, many pundits argued that 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, which featured a daydream sequence in which the main character imagines gunning down students and teachers in his high school, may have influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In his book Screening Violence, Stephen Prince argues that irresponsible portrayals of violence in the movies are on the rise. “Many filmmakers who portray ultraviolence are emotionally disengaged from it and show it in a dispassionate manner,” he writes, “for them, it is a special effect and a box-office asset.”
The charge that entertainers use violence as a gimmick to attract and captivate audiences has been leveled at the music industry as well as television and movies. In the early 1990s “gangsta” rap came under attack for its glorification of guns and gang life, and many rap and hip hop artists are still criticized for using violent and misogynistic themes in their lyrics. After Columbine, critics also accused “shock rocker” Marilyn Manson, as well as “goth” music in general, of promoting nihilism and despair. Thomas L. Jipping, director of a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., writes that “negative or destructive themes [in popular music] are now the rule rather than the exception. . . . Popular music remains part of the cultural virus that can lead some young people to violence.”
A final form of entertainment that has often been singled out as a “cultural virus” is the video game. As with other media, not all video games are violent, but some video games do center around violence. The most violent genre is that of the first-person shooter, which essentially simulates the shootouts that are so prominent in violent films and television. First-person shooters such as Doom and Quake were drawn into the media violence debate after it was reported that the shooters at Columbine High School had played them. Conservative columnist John Leo writes, “If we want to avoid more Littleton-style massacres, we will begin taking the social effects of [these] killing games more seriously.”
Does violent entertainment have benefits?
Are these attacks on violent television, movies, music, and video games warranted? Many observers of the media violence debate feel that the hysteria over school shootings has gone too far. As horrific as they are, school shootings remain an extremely rare crime. Moreover, Mike Males, the author of The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents, notes that “the best evidence shows that rates of murder, school violence, drug abuse, criminal arrest, violent death and gun fatality among middle- and upper-class teenagers have declined over the last 15 to 30 years. . . . If pop culture, music, video games, and Internet images affect teenagers, we should credit them for the fact that young people are behaving better,” he concludes.
According to one theory, viewing media violence is a catharsis which may actually help reduce aggression. Violent entertainment may offer viewers—especially young males—a way to explore their violent tendencies without hurting anyone. In the case of violent video games, for example, New Jersey teenager Joe Stavitsky wrote in Harper’s magazine that “as a ‘geek,’ I can tell you that . . . video games do not cause violence; they prevent it. We see games as a perfectly safe release from a physically violent reaction to the daily abuse leveled at us.” Richard Rhodes, the author of Why They Kill, writes that “entertainment media are therapeutic, not toxic. That’s what the evidence shows.”
Although themes of violence have always played a part in storytelling, never before have young people been exposed to so many television shows, movies, songs, and video games that feature violence. For obvious reasons, the wave of school shootings has served to bring this issue to the fore. The authors featured in At Issue: Is Media Violence a Problem? present all sides of this important debate.