Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Is the Research Flawed?

Although most media scholars and critics, parents, teachers, and legislators agree violent content in television, movies, and video games is harmful to children, some vocal media defenders dispute such an effect.

The largest group of media defenders is the media themselves. When Congress held one of its first hearings on the issue of television violence, in 1954, Merle Jones, CBS-TV Vice President of Owned Stations and General Services, told the assembled senators he had research showing TV did not contribute to juvenile delinquency. Fast forward to the 1970s or the 1990s, and the sentiments from media executives are the same. They can present research that electronic media are not harmful to children or adults.

Several media scholars also believe the research on media violence isn't as conclusive as author Dave Grossman and Iowa State researcher Craig Anderson believe it to be. In an essay for PBS.org, Henry Jenkins of MIT argues that the scientific evidence linking video games to aggressive behavior is spurious. He notes that "no research has found that video games are a primary factor [in aggressive behavior] or that violent video game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer."

Jenkins targets Grossman's claim that because video games are used in military training, they are teaching the same skills to young players. Jenkins, who calls Grossman a "moral reformer," points out that the context of military training is quite different from playtime in a teenager's bedroom: "The military uses games as part of a specific curriculum, with clearly defined goals, in a context where students actively want to learn and have a need for the information being transmitted. There are consequences for not mastering those skills."

Cheryl Olson, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, offers similar criticism of video game research. In an article published in Academic Psychiatry last year, Olson argues the research on video games and violence is too superficial. "There's no indication that violence rose in lockstep with the spread of violent games," she writes, attributing conflicting findings on the subject to vague definitions of aggression, as well as a failure to examine use of violent media in context with other known contributors to aggression, such as illegal substance use and family poverty.

"It's very difficult to document whether and how violent video and computer games contribute to serious violence such as criminal assault and murder," Olson continues. "It's time to move beyond blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes and focus on developing targeted educational and policy interventions based on solid data."

Jenkins and Olson agree with Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and others who argue that the real concern with research that links media content with real-world violent behavior is how the studies were conducted. Methodology is what led Jib Fowles to write his book, The Case For Television Violence. A professor of communication at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Fowles refutes the thousands of media studies that have found a link between media content and aggressive   behavior.

Fowles agrees with Olson: The first glaring problem is definitional. Just what is violence, and why are so many definitions used in those thousands of studies? Researchers have to define violence before they begin counting and analyzing the violent actions in media content. If a character in a game threatens another character verbally but doesn't actually harm him physically, is that a violent act? What about humorous acts like throwing a pie at someone? Is that violence? The more expansive the definition, Fowles says, the more violent a show, movie, or game becomes.

In a talk to the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago a few years ago, Goldstein said the accepted psychological definition of violence--the intentional injury of another person--shouldn't be used in video game research. There is no intent to injure, and no live victim. Players are striving to win games, not engage in aggressive behavior--and the behavior isn't real anyway.

According to Fowles and others, another glaring problem is that many researchers find a relationship between violent media content and aggressive behavior, but they frame it as cause and effect. As Jenkins notes in his essay, there's a big difference between correlation and causation: "Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment."

Establishing a cause-effect relationship between two variables requires a complex study, generally a laboratory experiment. That's one of the few ways to control the study enough to state conclusively that one variable actually caused the other.

But, as Goldstein noted in his address in Chicago, "Play is a voluntary, self-directed activity, an experience that probably cannot be captured in a laboratory experiment." He argues that whatever action takes place in a controlled setting cannot be compared with the enjoyable activity that children and adults choose to engage in within the comfortable surroundings of home. "Being required to play a violent video game on demand is no one's idea of an entertainment experience."

Such is the nature of scientific debate--a tit-for-tat exchange over which controlled setting is more sterile, and which scientist's variable and control groups will be the most accurate. Worth noting, however, is that most researchers who have challenged the link between media violence and violent behavior have never conducted counter-experiments themselves. Further, Goldstein, Olson, and many of their contemporaries are or have been paid consultants for various media entities, which might lead some to question their motivation.

Human behavior seldom has easy answers, especially for something like aggression, which can be influenced by multiple variables simultaneously. The debate is invigorating to researchers but frustrating for parents, teachers, and child advocates who want answers. As a media professor who is also the mother of two small children, my advice to my students is, weigh the preponderance of evidence and make a decision that feels right to you.

--Dr. Keisha L. Hoerrner


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