"The verdict on violent entertainment is now in," Senator Sam Brownback recently declared. "Violent entertainment is a public health hazard."
To back up that claim, the Kansas Republican touted a joint statement from the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Well over 1,000 studies," it said, "point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children."
To the average person, that sounds pretty impressive. But to anyone familiar with the research in this area, the statement is puzzling.
Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto psychologist who recently completed a review of the scientific literature, counts about 200 published studies that have tried to measure the impact of TV or film violence on aggression. "Anyone who says 'over 1,000' obviously has not looked at the research," he says. "It's so blatantly out of line."
Nor is it correct to say that the research "overwhelmingly" confirms the belief that watching fictional violence leads to violence in real life. "The majority of studies do not find evidence that supports the notion that television violence causes aggression," says Freedman.
Most of the studies are laboratory experiments in which the viewing experience is very different from actual TV or movie watching and the "aggression" is far removed from the sort of violence that people worry about. In one famous experiment, for example, preschoolers who were shown a film of a man attacking an inflatable clown doll were more likely to knock the toy around than preschoolers who didn't see the film.
The relevance of such studies to real-life situations is questionable, to say the least. The problem is compounded by the fact that a researcher's expectations can influence a subject's behavior (as well as the way the behavior is evaluated).
"The showing of the violent film, which is usually a very short excerpt, almost inevitably carries a message that this is expected or allowed or wanted," Freedman observes. "It's very artificial research."
Field studies, in which the everyday behavior of subjects exposed to violent fare is compared to that of subjects who watch tamer stuff, attempt to address some of these weaknesses. But they produce inconsistent results, with only about 25 percent, by Freedman's estimate, providing support for the hypothesis that violent entertainment increases aggression.
Finally, there are correlational studies, which generally find that kids who watch more violent TV tend to be more aggressive. The main drawback of these studies is that correlation does not prove causation: It could simply be that aggressive people prefer violent entertainment.
The weaknesses in the evidence supporting the indictment of violent entertainment are well-known to scholars in the field. For the layman, Jib Fowles, a professor of communication at the University of Houston, offers a concise, accessible overview in his 1999 book The Case for Television Violence (Sage).
But politicians and "public health" busybodies want to pretend that critics like Freedman and Fowles do not exist, that there is no controversy about the impact of violent entertainment. Hence the joint statement highlighted by Brownback, including the whopper about "well over 1,000 studies" and the exaggeration of what the research shows–both of which were uncritically repeated by newspapers.
"Among the professional community," said Brownback, "there's no longer any doubt about this." In other words, only the ignorant persist in questioning the causal link between violent entertainment and violent crime, which the senator compared to the link between smoking and lung cancer.
Let's be frank. For people who think government needs to do something about violence in popular culture–a diverse group that includes both "conservatives" who supposedly insist on individual responsibility and "liberals" who supposedly believe in freedom of speech–the idea that entertainment causes crime is an excuse to censor material they would find objectionable regardless of what the research indicated.
Personally, I'm more worried about the environmentalist propaganda on Captain Planet than the violence on The Powerpuff Girls. But I try to separate my preferences as a parent and a viewer from my policy prescriptions, and I try to separate both from my reading of the evidence.
After mischaracterizing the research on violent entertainment and declaring an end to the debate, the distinguished public health experts assembled by Brownback closed their statement by calling for "a more honest dialogue." OK. You first.