News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee

Chris Ferguson (Chair, cjfergus@stetson.edu), Dana Klisinan, Jerri Lynn Hogg, June Wilson, Patrick Markey, Andy Przybylski, Malte Elson, Jimmy Ivory, Deborah Linebarger, Mary Gregerson, Frank Farley, & Shahbaz Siddiqui

The views here are those of Division 46 (Society for Media Psychology and Technology) of the American Psychological Association and do not represent an official position of APA.  APA’s official position on this issue is the Resolution on Violent Video Games that was adopted as policy by the Council of Representatives in August of 2015 and can be accessed at the following URL: http://www.apa.org/about/policy/violent-video-games.aspx. This policy was based on a technical report written by the APA Task Force on Violent Media that can be accessed at the following URL: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.aspx.

In December the News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee (NMPEPP) shared a report on mass shootings and violent media that was in draft form. Following peer review, this public education statement has now been finalized.

On behalf of NMPEPP, I thank the peer reviewers and others in the division who contributed comments that resulted in an improved statement. This public education statement was formally approved by the APA Division 46 (Media Psychology and Technology) Board of Directors on March 10, 2017. We look forward to working on many similar public education statements on a variety of media issues in the years to come

Societal Violence and Video Games: Public Statements of a Link are Problematic

Journalists and policy makers do their constituencies a disservice in cases where they link acts of real-world violence with the perpetrators’ exposure to violent video games or other violent media. There’s little scientific evidence to support the connection, and it may distract us from addressing those issues that we know contribute to real-world violence.

Criminologists who study mass homicides, in their analyses of such crimes, have either excluded the issue of video games (Lankford, 2013), or explicitly referred to links between violent games and mass homicides as a “myth” (Fox & DeLateur, 2014). Yet, very commonly, after young males commit high-profile acts of violence, politicians and news media may speculatively “link” such crimes to violent video games or other violent media.  Such claims which are not based on research evidence may distract society from more substantive causes of violence as poverty, lack of treatment options for mental health as well as crime victimization among the mentally ill, and educational and employment disparities.  With this statement, Division 46 (the American Psychological Association’s division for Media Psychology and Technology) advises policy makers, community officials, and news media not to attribute or insinuate blame for acts of violence on video games or other fictional media.

Mass Shootings and Video Games

A wide body of research has examined the impact of violent video games on relatively minor acts of aggression, such as the administration of unwanted hot sauce to make food too spicy, making someone put his or her hand in freezing ice water or bursts of white noise in laboratory experiments. These studies have resulted in mixed outcomes, some reporting evidence for significant effects, and others do not.  Further, the validity of these measures of aggression remains debated (Ritter & Eslea, 2005; Tedeschi & Quigley, 1996).  Whether such studies provide conclusive evidence for a relationship between violent video games and these minor forms of aggression remains a matter of reasonable debate (Anderson et al., 2010; Ferguson, 2015a; Hilgard et al, in press; Kanamori & Doi, 2016; Sherry, 2007).  We note that even among the members of APA Division 46 Society for Media Psychology and Technology, opinions regarding the impact of media violence on aggression differ considerably.  It would be entirely reasonable for a scholar to argue that some links between violent media and aggression may exist, just as it is also reasonable for a scholar to argue that links between violent media and aggression do not exist.  This document therefore focuses upon the less publicized, more scientifically sound view that little evidence exists that playing violent videogames produces violent criminal behavior.  Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities.

By contrast, research evidence available to date indicates that violent video games have minimal impact on violent activity in society. Correlational and longitudinal studies of youth suggest that violent video game exposure does not meaningfully predict youth physical aggression or violent crime (DeCamp, 2015; Przybylski & Mishkin, 2016; Surette & Maze, 2015; Ybarra et al., 2008).  Some research has suggested that youth with more aggressive personalities may seek out violent games; however, violent games do not increase assaultive behavior among such youth (Breuer et al., 2015).  Further, little clear evidence has emerged that youth identified as “at risk” due to elevated mental health symptoms are influenced to become more aggressive due to exposure to violent video games (Ferguson & Olson, 2014; Engelhardt et al., 2015.)  Further, evidence from societal data examining video game violence use has yet to document that such use is predictive of violent crime (Ferguson, 2015b; Cunningham et al., 2016; Markey, Markey & French, 2015).  Similar absence of predictive relationships has been observed for violent movies (Dahl & DellaVigna, 2009; Markey, French & Markey, 2015.)

Analyses of mass homicide perpetrators themselves have not identified substantial links with violent video games.  A 2002 analysis by the US Secret Service (United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 2002) suggested that school shooters tended to consume relatively low amounts of violent media compared to normative levels for same-age peers.  This finding does not mean that if violence-prone youth watched more violent videos, they would be less likely to be violent. This finding simply means that no link has been found between school shooters and their videogame habits.

Why Do Perceptions of Links Persist?

Efforts to “link” violent crimes to violent video games and other media may persist due to a well-known phenomenon called “confirmation bias” or the tendency to pay attention only to information that confirms prior beliefs and ignore that which does not.   As such, when a perpetrator is a young male, news media and policy makers often pay extraordinary attention to their media habits.  However, when a perpetrator is an older male or, more rarely, a female, the issue of media violence is typically ignored.  By attending to only those cases that fit the assumption that violent media exposure is universal among criminal perpetrators and ignoring those cases that conflict with this narrative, the perception of a correlation can take hold where no such correlation exists.  This selective reporting may create the impression that there is suitable evidence to link violence and media consumption despite the existence of any clear evidence.  Laypeople whose only source of information on this topic is the media are particularly susceptible to believing this narrative.  Selective attention may also fail to observe that the correlation between youth violence and violent video game use in society is an inverse one, with youth violence declining by over 80% during the decades in which violent game use soared (Ferguson, 2015b.)  Of course, violent behavior is complex, and not just one pathway toward violent behavior exists.  However, we note that news media’s attention to data from individual acts of violent crime is often selective, and often ignores larger complexities.

These days, just about every child—both boys and girls—plays video games (Olson, 2010). Discovering that a young crime perpetrator also happened to play violent video games is no more illustrative than discovering that he or she happened to wear sneakers or used to watch Sesame Street.  This is a classic error: trying to predict something rare, such as a violent crime, by looking at something common, such as playing violent video games or, for that matter, drinking milk.  Confirmation bias (Yeo et al., 2015) has often resulted in the preservation of this false belief.  There have been several shooters who were initially linked to playing violent games, yet upon investigative review were found to be minimal consumers (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007; State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury, 2013).  These include the perpetrator of the 2007 mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, who was found to have no notable exposure to violent games despite initial claims to the contrary, and the perpetrator of the 2012 mass shooting on the Sandy Hook elementary campus, who, although reported to have several outdated action-oriented games in his home, was reported by witnesses to mainly play non-violent games such as Dance, Dance Revolution.

Recommendations:

Given that the weight of research evidence is unable to support links between violent video games or other violent media and societal violence, the News Media, Public Education, and Public Policy Committee of the American Psychological Association Division 46 The Society for Media Psychology & Technology make the following recommendations which may help to adequately inform the public.

  1. Public officials and news media should avoid stating explicitly or implicitly that criminal offenses were caused by violent media. This would extend to implicit language such as “it was as if they were playing a video game” or “the offender was obsessed with violent video games.”
  2. Public officials and news media should refrain from erroneous statements implying all perpetrators of a particular class (such as school shooters) have been influenced by violent video games or other media. Similarly, comparisons of media effects research with medical effects research (e.g. suggesting that the public health threats presented by media are similar in magnitude to those presented by cigarettes or other well-known health risks) is unwarranted.
  3. Scholarly organizations, such as the APA, when asked about video games or media and criminal events, should state explicitly that research in this area is ongoing; rather than having demonstrated clear effects. At present, it could be reasonable to argue both for or against relationships between violent media and aggression. However, for violent crime, a research base linking crime to violent media is lacking and disconfirmatory evidence too abundant to assert the presence of links.
  4. Discussions of media effects should extend to “aggression” rather than “violence” news media, and reporters should solicit views from scholars on both sides of the media effects debate to give the public a well-rounded view of the issue. Public figures are well advised to recall that while violence refers to a narrow class of behaviors intended to cause serious physical harm, aggression is a much broader category of behaviors, including many very mild behaviors and some (such as sports aggression, competition, or debating) that are socially sanctioned. Hearing both sides of the debate permits viewers to make up their own minds. News media should also be careful to differentiate the type of abstract “aggression” typically studied in the laboratory (e.g., the administration of hot sauce, ice water, bursts of white noise, responses on a questionnaire) experiments from the physical aggression and violence typically of interest to the general public.
  5. Public officials, news media, and scholarly organizations (such as APA) would do well to focus on scientifically valid substantive causes of violence ranging from poverty to mental health issues to educational and social disparities. Focusing on video games or other media can distract from real causes of violence and do harm.
  6. News media would benefit from remembering that discovering a young male perpetrator of a crime also happened to play violent video games or watch violent movies is not remarkable given the commonness of such media use among young males. Such disclosures should not be treated as significant or as causes.

References

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., & … Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151-173. doi:10.1037/a0018251

Breuer, J., Vogelgesang, J., Quandt, T., & Festl, R. (2015). Violent video games and physical aggression: Evidence for a selection effect among adolescents. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), 305-328. doi:10.1037/ppm0000035

Cunningham, S., Engelstatter, B., & Ward, M. (2016).  Violent video games and violent crime. Southern Economic Journal, 82, 1247-1265. Doi.10.1002/soej.12139

Dahl, G., & DellaVigna, S. (2009).  Does movie violence increase violent crime? The Quarterly Journal of Economics,124, 677-733. https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.2009.124.2.677

DeCamp, W. (2015). Impersonal agencies of communication: Comparing the effects of video games and other risk factors on violence. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), 296-304. doi:10.1037/ppm0000037

Engelhardt, C. R., Mazurek, M. O., Hilgard, J., Rouder, J. N., & Bartholow, B. D. (2015). Effects of violent-video-game exposure on aggressive behavior, aggressive-thought accessibility, and aggressive affect among adults with and without autism spectrum disorder. Psychological Science, 26, 1187-1200. doi:10.1177/0956797615583038

Ferguson, C. J. (2015a).  Do angry birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game Influences on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 646-666.

Ferguson, C.J. (2015b).  Does movie or videogame violence predict societal violence? It depends on what you look at and when. Journal of Communication, 65, 193-212.

Ferguson, C. J., & Olson, C. K. (2014).  Video game violence use among “vulnerable” populations: The impact of violent games on delinquency and bullying among children with clinically elevated depression or attention deficit symptoms. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, 127-136.

Fox, J., & DeLateur, M. (2014).  Mass shootings in America: Moving beyond Newtown. Homicide Studies, 18, 125-145.  doi:10.1177/1088767913510297

Hilgard J, Engelhardt, C, & Rouder J. (2016).  Overestimated Effects of Violent Games on Aggressive Outcomes in Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin.

Kanamori, F., & Doi, S. (2016).  Angry birds, angry children and angry meta-analysts.   Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 408-414.

Lankford, A. (2013). A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010. Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17, 255-274. doi:10.1177/1088767912462033

Markey, P. M., French, J. E., & Markey, C. N. (2015). Violent movies and severe acts of violence: Sensationalism versus science. Human Communication Research, 41, 155-173. doi:10.1111/hcre.12046

Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2015). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4, 277-295. doi:10.1037/ppm0000030

Olson, C. K. (2010). Children’s motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187.

Przybylski, A. K., & Mishkin, A. F. (2016). How the quantity and quality of electronic gaming relates to adolescents’ academic engagement and psychosocial adjustment. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 5, 145-156. doi:10.1037/ppm0000070

Ritter, D., & Eslea, M. (2005).  Hot sauce, toy guns and graffiti: A critical account of current laboratory aggression paradigms. Aggressive Behavior, 31, 407-419.

Sherry J. (2007).  Violent video games and aggression: Why can’t we find links? In R. Preiss, B. Gayle, N. Burrell, M. Allen, & J. Bryant (Eds.), Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-analysis (pp 231-248). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Dansbury. (2013). Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.  Danbury, CT: Office of the state’s attorney judicial district of Danbury.

Surette, R., & Maze, A. (2015). Video Game Play and Copycat Crime: An Exploratory Analysis of an Inmate Population. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4, 360-374. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000050

United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. (2002).  The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Retrieved 7/2/12 from http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf.

Tedeschi, J. T., & Quigley, B. M. (1996). Limitations of laboratory paradigms for studying aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 1, 163–177. doi: 10.1016/1359-1789(95)00014-3

Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2007). Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. Retrieved 11/11/07 from: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/TempContent/techPanelReport.cfm.

Ybarra, M., Diener-West, M., Markow, D., Leaf, P., Hamburger, M., & Boxer, P. (2008). Linkages between internet and other media violence with seriously violent behavior by youth. Pediatrics, 122, 929-937.

Yeo, S. K., Xenos, M. A., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2015). Selecting our own science: How communication contexts and individual traits shape information seeking. Annals Of The American Academy Of Political And Social Science658, 172-191. doi:10.1177/0002716214557782

 

 

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