Video Games and Societal Violence: Cause for Urgent Action or a Bridge Too Far?

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook, an unusual alliance of concerned policymakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as gun rights and children's advocates have called for new studies of violent entertainment, presuming a link with societal violence. Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a highly regarded children's champion, went so far as to assert: "Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better." In the President's recent comprehensive plan to respond to the tragedy in Newtown, he earmarked funding for research on the role that violent media are playing in children's healthy development.

As parents and as scholars involved in media research we are certainly concerned with violence in all of its forms, and the possibility that exposure could cause harm to children. But we are equally concerned that the recent public debate over video games, while completely understandable, could set a tone that will lead to conclusions that simply are not confirmed by the existing evidence. These charged conclusions could result in public policy decisions that are not only based on weak or non-existent evidence, but which will draw attention away from the search for the primary and preventable causes of American gun violence.

We know from history, that tragic events often spark moral panics that target media. Recall the tremendous hue and cry following Columbine, where the predators in the mass violence were portrayed as loners who were addicted to violent video games, or the recent descriptions of the Newtown gunman as someone who was isolated and played with digital media for hours a day.

But as appealing as the anecdotal evidence is, empirically these findings don't hold up. Comprehensive, scientifically conducted reviews of the video game violence field such as those called for by some policymakers and advocates already exist: the U.S. Supreme Court as well as highly credible reviews by Australia and Sweden have all recently concluded that the existing video game research could not support direct links between violent entertainment and societal violence. (For a further report on the ways in which data are being debated see this recent review.)

In fact during the rise of video game use since Columbine, youth violence has plummeted to 40-year lows, and cross-nationally, countries that consume as many or more video games per capita have much lower violence rates, even if you factor out gun violence. As a cable news and social media saturated culture, we may be experiencing a kind of societal confirmation bias, paying attention only to shooters who fit our stereotypes, mainly young males, and ignoring media when shooters don't fit our stereotypes such as the 62-year old man who killed two firefighters the week after Sandy Hook, the 70-year old man who attacked a Phoenix law office or the Georgia man in his 60s who initiated a stand-off after abducting a young boy.

The White House has used careful language in calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct further study of gun violence and violent entertainment. Naturally, as scholars, we value the opportunity for research funding on an important topic. But, we need to be ever vigilant to de-couple the public outrage from the violence at Sandy Hook, from the conduct of deliberate and serious inquiry. The CDC's track record in this area is in our view spotty. One of their studies found that once family, personality and social factors were controlled, violent video games and television no longer predicted youth aggression. Nonetheless, the authors of that study claimed media could be harmful, confounding their own important results. We worry that in a heated political environment, ideology could trump empirical evidence. One solution: data from any studies funded by the government should be made openly available for independent peer review by the scholarly community.

There are other ways to use research effectively: as a ballast and balance for industry and media designers. In the decade following Columbine the nation decided to invest its efforts in video game regulation. The result was two-fold—the development of a voluntary rating system that has been, as noted by the FTC highly effective, but which has some pluggable holes, especially in helping parents of the most vulnerable children make informed media consumption decisions and the creation of spurious legislation, often struck down by courts not only as unconstitutional but poorly supported by data. Tragically, in that time, we lost track of some of the much more vital causes of our epidemic of gun violence: namely, the lack of progress on mental health reform and common-sense measures like background checks on all gun purchases.

In brief, money spent chasing a moral panic over video games may be satisfying to those who worry about "a culture of violence," but it has the possibility, unfortunately of causing a dangerous distraction from more important issues. Historical efforts to blame everything from comic books to Elvis Presley to Harry Potter for societal ills might sound right, but they are outside the realm of solid, scientific evidence. Much as we would like to believe there is some kind of magic elixir to bring communities together in action, efforts to blame video games and movies for the eruptions of violence we too often witness in the U.S. is certainly a "bridge too far." We hope that policymakers, media industry leaders and parents themselves will remain focused on key solutions we know to be vitally important, based on the evidence, and starting right now.