Media violence and violent behaviour

The implications of media violence and its corresponding impact on human behaviour has been studied through various disciplines for over 50 years.

Media violence and violent behaviour
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Abstract: The implications of media violence and its corresponding impact on human behaviour has been studied through various disciplines for over 50 years. There are wide-ranging views on the subject from scholars with opposing views. The role of media such as television, film, literature, and video games has been heavily contested, but scholars have reached a consensus, that while there may or may not be a direct link between media violence and violent behaviour, there is certainly a link between media violence and aggression. Research has also shown that children are more prone to experiencing this effect.

The intense debate surrounding violent media and its link to violent behaviour and crime has raged on for decades and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Media effects have been studied through various disciplines such as sociology, criminology, medicine, psychology and media studies (Phillips, 2017). The cause for violent behaviour has been blamed on different forms of media such as television, literature, video games, and film.

Religious texts have also been linked to violent behaviour. The Bible has allegedly been used as a source of inspiration by criminals and there have been studies conducted in the past to prove the relationship between religion and crime (Ferguson, 2010). One famous example would be the murder of John Lennon (member of the Beatles). He was killed by Mark Chapman, a man who had recently undergone religious conversion. He was antagonised by Lennon’s lack of belief in God. He was also influenced by the views of the fictional protagonist in the book, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which he was carrying with him at the time of the murder. While other societal factors may have played a part in the shooting, Chapman’s religious beliefs and links to the book were heavily publicised. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and the Bible are not the only pieces of literature to have been a target of criticism. ‘Harry Potter’ also came under the spotlight, with concerned parents believing that it was teaching their children witchcraft (Ferguson, 2010). Dungeons and Dragons, the board game, was also a concern for parents as they believed that it led to Satanism and mental illness (Ferguson, 2010). After analysis of scholarly articles, (Bushman and Anderson, 2001) described the link between portrayals of violence in the media and crime, as an absolute certainty, akin to the link between smoking and lung cancer. This may seem far-fetched and many other scholars have claimed the whole field of study (media violence research) has been mismanaged due to inconsistent findings, biased studies, incompatibility between theories and crime data, and a lack of comprehension of alternative factors, which may cause aggression, such as family dynamics or personality traits (e.g., Freedman, 2002; Olson, 2004; Savage, 2004). In particular, (Coyne, 2007) re-iterates this point by commenting that the link between media violence and crime is weak ‘after environmental factors are taken into consideration’. She believes that for a link between the two to be made, extensive research has to be conducted across a criminal’s entire lifetime to see how much the individual was influenced by media. Several medical practitioners have also been sceptical in drawing comparisons between media violence and crime with smoking and lung cancer (Block and Crain, 2007). While scholar tend to disagree over the links between media, violent behaviour, and crime, they do acknowledge the fact, that there is correlation between violent media portrayals and aggression. This has been reflected in numerous studies conducted over the last 60 years (Coyne, 2007). According to scholars such as (Anderson,2016), the short-term effects of media are ‘direct imitation of the observed behaviour, observational learning of attitudes, beliefs and expected benefits of aggression, increased excitation, and priming of aggression-related ways of thinking and feeling’.

Experiments have also shown that the link between media violence and aggression is more prevalent amongst adolescent groups, as younger people are more easily swayed by media content (Huesmann and Taylor, 2006). Studies conducted by scholars, (Comstock and Paik, 1991) found that children in the United States watched three to four hours of television on average every day. Consumption of media content has also risen with the introduction of social media. In a 1987 experiment conducted by W.L. Josephson (1987), the link between watching violent television and violent behaviour was studied. A group of 396 seven- to nine-year-olds were randomly assigned to watch violent and non-violent clips of television. After viewing the clip, they were told to play a game of field hockey and acts of violence were recorded by observers. An act of physical violence was defined by kicking, shoving, hitting, and fouls. The referee held a walkie-talkie as a symbol, which was significant because the boys who had seen the violent clips, had witnessed the object in those clips. Boys who had seen the violent clips, exhibited more violent behaviour, than those who had not seen the clips. Also, boys who were labelled to be aggressive before the experiment engaged in more assaults than the average. This shows that while the immediate effects of watching violent media are clear, other environmental factors come into play. This is reflected by the increased acts of violence amongst the boys, who had already been labelled as aggressive. No further studies were conducted regarding alternative causes for violence displayed by these boys.

Links between violent video games and violent behaviour have also been studied. While research has shown that playing violent video games may lead to increased aggression, especially among children, the overall finding is that there is a decrease in violent behaviour and crime (Ward, 2011). Due to the social cost that these violent games may have, most countries have criminalised the sale of these games to minors. Research conducted in laboratory settings has indicated that there is a link between violent video games and aggression, but these experiments do not account for environmental factors such as family violence or mental health issues. Observational studies have in fact proven that there is a decrease in crime and violent behaviour when individuals play violent games. Assumptions have been made that this may be due to individuals spending time trying to ‘beat the game’ instead of engaging in other activities which may be deemed dangerous to society. Scholars are curious as to whether the time effect outweighs the aggression effect and more research is required on the topic. According to the distinguished psychologist, Craig Anderson, violent games such as ‘Call of Duty’ may play a role in mass shootings. The Columbine school shooting which occurred in the United States, was carried out by an individual, who regularly played a shooting game called ‘Doom’. The violence and gore of this game may have had an effect on the shooter, according to Anderson. Although, there is no concrete evidence to support this claim.

As scholar, Jenny Kitzinger (2004) mentioned, there are two ways to evaluate society’s reaction to the media. One is to assume that the media holds extreme power over the viewing audience which consists of passive members and the other is to assume that individuals are active agents who can interpret information in their own way. The first assumption draws inspiration from the ‘hypodermic needle model’ which states that audiences are passive, and ideas, information, and values can be “injected” into them without any resistance. This model works under the assumption that media is all-powerful and its consumption has a direct and immediate effect on the audience, where messaging can be used to strategically persuade them to act in a certain way. An example of this is how Nazi Germany used propaganda to convince the public of their mission against the Jewish population. Most scholars in today’s world refute this theory and believe that audiences play an active role in analysing whatever form of media they consume and that they cannot be so easily influenced.

Another topic of debate among modern scholars are copycat crimes, which tend to ignite controversy among the general public. Criminologist, Jacqueline Helfgott defines copycat crimes as “crimes that are inspired by another crimes” (Helfgott, 2015). The concept is that these individuals base their actions on both the real and fictional characters depicted in the media. One notable example of the convergence between media violence and criminal behaviour is the mass shooting that occurred at a premiere of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ in Aurora, Colorado. The Gunman’s appearance resembled a villain from the popular film and he allegedly stated that he was the ‘Joker’ before opening fire on the viewers. This horrifying act of terror reignited the debate over the links between media violence and violent behaviour. Offenders in copycat crimes may be inspired by media but several of these criminals have stated, that it is also due to a desire for fame.

While there are countless papers that explore media effects, it will always be difficult to establish a link between media violence and violent behaviour. One reason is that most studies are commentaries on previous research and not original. Until more original studies are conducted is will be hard to ascertain whether there is a direct link between the two. Most scholars will veer away from making any direct connections or assumptions.



Anderson C. A. (2016). Media Violence Effects on Children, Adolescents and Young Adults. Health progress (Saint Louis, Mo.), 97(4), 59–62.

Block, J. J., & Crain, B. R. (2007). Omissions and errors in "media violence and the American public". The American psychologist, 62(3), 252–254.

Bushman, B.J., & Anderson, C.A. (2001). Media violence and the American public. Scientific facts versus media misinformation. The American psychologist, 56 6-7, 477-89.

Comstock, George. & Paik, Hae-Jung. (1991).  Television and the American child.  San Diego: Academic Press,

Coyne, S. (2007). Does Media Violence Cause Violent Crime?. European Journal On Criminal Policy And Research, 13(3-4), 205-211.

Cunningham, S., Engelstätter, B., & Ward, M. (2011). Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1886419

Ferguson, C. (2010). Media Violence Effects and Violent Crime: Good Science or Moral Panic?. Violent Crime: Clinical And Social Implications, 37-56. doi: 10.4135/9781483349305.n3

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Helfgott, J. B. (2015). Criminal behavior and the copycat effect: Literature review and theoretical framework for empirical investigation. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 22(C), 46–64.

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Josephson W. L. (1987). Television violence and children's aggression: testing the priming, social script, and disinhibition predictions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(5), 882–890.

Kitzinger, J. (2004). Framing abuse: Media influence and public understanding of sexual violence against children. London: Polity.

Olson C. K. (2004). Media violence research and youth violence data: why do they conflict?. Academic psychiatry: the journal of the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training and the Association for Academic Psychiatry, 28(2), 144–150.

Phillips, N. (2017). Violence, Media Effects, and Criminology. Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Criminology And Criminal Justice. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.189

Savage, J. (2004). Does viewing violent media really cause criminal violence? A methodological review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10(1), 99–128.