For many years, scholars and professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Psychological Association (APA) held, as an article of faith, that media violence causes aggression in children—although the general public largely spurned this idea. Claims were made at various times that of 3500 studies of media violence, only 18 did not find effects; that 10% to 30% of societal violence was caused specifically by media violence; and that the effects of media violence on aggression were comparable to those of smoking on lung cancer.1-3
New research over the past decade has suggested that links between media violence and child aggression are less clear than previously thought. How has our understanding of media violence effects changed?
Changes in theory
The notion that children will model what they see in media and become more aggressive if they watch a lot of violent media has intuitive, simplistic appeal. This “hypodermic needle” model of media effects—so called because of the assumption that behaviors are essentially injected into hapless consumers—has been the default theoretical model of media effects for decades. This model also happens to fit well with moral advocacy efforts geared at opposing offensive aspects of media (eg, sex, violence, rebelliousness). However, this approach also depends on some basic assumptions that are problematic. These include assumptions that imitation of behavior is automatic, universal, and purposeless; that aggression is primarily learned (as opposed to innate factors combined with stress); that viewers are passive rather than active selectors and processers of media; and that fictional media is processed by the brain in a similar manner to real-life events.
By contrast, new theoretical models such as Self Determination Theory and Mood Management Theory suggest that viewers actively select media to meet their motivational or mood goals. Neither the selection of media, nor outcome behaviors are driven primarily by media content but rather by a user’s goals and motivations. From such models, we would expect to see that different users respond differently to particular forms of media. Thus, a violent video game might increase frustration in one player who does not enjoy the game, but legitimately relax another after a stressful day. And a non-violent video game could do the same. Indeed, this notion that the “fit” between media and individuals in pursuit of motivational goals is more important than objectionable conforms to more recent research.4
What went wrong?
In realizing how our understanding of media effects is changing, it is important to place these transitions in light of the larger replication crisis in psychological science—many of the ideas once thought to be true are now proving difficult to replicate. This has been particularly true for an area of research called social priming that implies that humans automatically and unconsciously alter their behavior based on environmental cues. Once considered absolutely factual, more recent research reveals that older studies of social priming are difficult to replicate.5 Social priming is conceptually similar to the hypodermic needle approach to understanding media effects.
Analysis of past research has identified several clear problems that led to spurious results. One was publication bias, the tendency for academic fields to publish only research that supports effects, and to suppress null studies. Recent analyses have suggested, for instance, that the results of violent video game experiments are largely the product of publication bias.6,7
Dr. Ferguson is Professor of Psychology, Stetson University, DeLand, FL. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
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