Exposure to Violence Begets Violence?

As some blame Hollywood for mass shootings, this writer cautions against jumping to conclusions.

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(The Root) -- The Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage in July that left 12 dead and 58 wounded has left people searching for answers and pointing fingers at what could have been done to avoid this tragedy. Blame has been lobbed at psychiatry, school officials, family and media for the inexplicable decision to allegedly massacre a group of innocent people gathered to watch The Dark Knight Rises. James Holmes is suspected of having carried out the act dressed as "the Joker," a fictional character who has been Batman's arch-nemesis since his introduction to the DC Comics' Batman series in 1940.

Holmes' alleged references to the Joker have many people pondering the effects that exposure to violent media (comics, video games, film, television, Internet) could have had on the horrible act of which he stands accused. 

This particular critique resonates with me the most as a professor and media scholar, because even though that sounds like a reasonable explanation, the effects of violence in media are hard to prove. It is nearly impossible to control for other factors like exposure to violence in the home, socialization or a lack thereof or mental illness.

Violence in the media is often the go-to reason for why people behave violently, but establishing a causal relationship between exposure to violence in media and violent acts is quite complicated. Media scholars, particularly cultural theorists, have dispelled the idea that the link between violence in media and violent acts in society is absolute.

Media scholar Dr. David Zurawik, who has taught a course on children and television at the University of Maryland and Goucher College over the last 20 years, believes that it is impossible to blame violence in media for acts like the one supposedly carried out by James Holmes. "If violence encoded in some media text caused violence in the real world, you'd have massive outbreaks of violence when it shows on the screen," he said. "Of course that doesn't happen because everyone reacts differently to that exposure."

Millions of people read comic books and watch movies and don't go out and shoot up a movie theater. "In 30 years of writing about and studying the media," Zurawik added, "and 20 years of teaching it, I absolutely believe you cannot blame the movies for Holmes' alleged act unless you want to discard the evidence and research by media scholars."

Unlike many cultural-studies-based media scholars, psychologists often insist that the link between exposure to violence in media increases aggressive behavior in society. A 2003 collaborative study conducted by eight universities entitled "The Influence of Media Violence on Youth" concluded:

Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community.

While the findings of this study are valid, it is still very difficult to control for other factors. For example, is a child who plays violent video games more likely to be violent or antisocial because of the video game or because of the lack of socialization with other groups, including peers, outside of the home? The idea that children will become more violent by exposure to violence in media suggests that children are passive consumers and unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Zurawik, who also serves as media critic for the Baltimore Sun, disagrees with this notion. He offers, "When you look at the latest research in the media-studies field, children have tremendous resistance to what they see on the screen. They talk back to the screen, compare it to their family and church situations and often resist what is being shown to them on the screen."