Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Cross-posted from the University of Michigan Press blog.

"Twilight of the Books," an essay of mine published in The New Yorker on 24 December 2007, has been honored by inclusion in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson. When The New Yorker published my essay, I posted on my blog a series of mini-bibliographies, for anyone who wanted to dig into the research behind my article and try to answer for themselves whether television impaired intellect or whether literary was declining (here's an index/overview to all these research posts). A month or so ago, when the University of Michigan Press, the publisher of The Best of Technology Writing 2008, invited me to write about my essay for their blog, I was afraid I didn't have any more to say. Also, alas, I was under deadline. But I have a breather now, and looking over my year-old notes, I realize that there were a couple of categories of research that I never posted about at the time, because the topics didn't happen to make it into my article's final draft.

This research tried to answer the questions, Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world? and Do video games impair academic performance? I still think the questions are very interesting, though I must now offer my summaries with the caveat that they are somewhat dated. In fact, I know of some very interesting research recently published on the first question, some of which you can read about on the blog On Fiction. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with video games as closely, but I'm sure there's more research on them, too. I hope there is, at any rate, because when I looked, I found very little. (By research, in all cases, I meant peer-reviewed studies based on experimental or survey data, and not popular treatments.)

A few words of introduction. The historian Lynn Hunt has suggested in her book Inventing Human Rights that in the eighteenth century, the novel helped to change Europe's mind about torture by encouraging people to imagine suffering from the inside. As if in corroboration, some of the research summarized below suggests that the brain responds less sympathetically when it is perceives violence through electronic media. As you'll see, however, there is some ambiguity in the evidence, and the field is highly contested.

1. Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world?

  • In a summary of pre-2006 research, John P. Murray pointed to experiments in the 1960s by Albert Bandura, showing that children tend to mimic violent behavior they have just seen on screen and to a number of studies in the early 1970s that found correlations between watching violence and participating in aggressive behavior or showing an increased willingness to harm others. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the Surgeon General to survey existing research asserted that "violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior," and in 1992, a similar panel commissioned by the American Psychological Association reported "clear evidence that television violence can cause aggressive behavior." One mechanism may be through television's ability to convince people that the world is dangerous and cruel, in what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Murray claims that a twenty-two-year longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, run by Huesmann and Eron, which was begun under the auspices of the Surgeon General's office, has linked boys' exposure to television violence at age eight to aggressive and antisocial behavior at age eighteen and to involvement in violent crime by age thirty; in fact, a 1972 study by Huesmann et al. did link boys' exposure at eight to aggressive behavior at eighteen, but the 1984 study cited by Murray linked violent crime at age thirty to aggressive behavior at age eight and said nothing about exposure to televised violence. In an unrelated study, when television was introduced in Canada, children's levels of aggression increased. [John P. Murray, "TV Violence: Research and Controversy," Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard D. Eron, Monroe M. Lefkowitz, and Leopold O. Walder, "Stability of Aggression Over Time and Generations," Developmental Psychology 1984. For a synopsis of Huesmann's 1972 study, see Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 208.]
  • A longitudinal study of 450 Chicago-area children was begun in 1977 when the children were between six and eight years old, and continued in 1992-1995, when they were between twenty-one and twenty-three years old. As children, the subjects were asked about their favorite television programs, whether they identified with the characters, and how true-to-life they thought the shows were. Fifteen years later, it emerged that watching violent shows, identifying with aggressive characters of the same sex, and believing that the shows were realistic correlated with adult aggression, including physical aggression. The effect was present even after controlling for such factors as initial childhood aggression, intellectual capacity, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of emotional support. (Note that in the opinion of the researchers, the Six Million Dollar Man was considered a "very violent" show, and that the heroine of the Bionic Woman was considered an aggressive character.) [L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood, 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology, 2003. Cf. Kirsh , p. 209.]
  • In a 2006 textbook about the relation between media violence and aggressive behavior, author Steven J. Kirsh notes that a 1994 meta-analysis of the link between television violence and aggression estimated the size of the effect to be r = .31. "The effect sizes for media violence and aggression are stronger than the effect sizes for condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, passive smoking and lung cancer at work, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and calcium intake and bone mass," Kirsh wrote. A 2004 meta-analysis found that the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior was r = .26. To put the effect sizes in perspective, Kirsh notes that they are greater than the link between testosterone levels and aggression, but weaker than the link between having antisocial peers and delinquency. In surveying the research on video games, Kirsh makes the point that there is little research as yet, and that most of it was done in what he calls the "Atari age," when the games were fairly innocuous; almost no one has experimentally tested the effects on children and teens of the new-generation, highly realistic and gory first-person shooter games. [Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006.]
  • In a 2007 summary of research, three scientists asserted that there was "unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," and noted that the link between television violence and aggression had been proved by studies in both the laboratory and the field, and by both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Video games were not as well documented, but in the opinion of the scientists, the preliminary evidence suggested that their effect would be similar. Playing violent video games has been shown to increase physiological arousal. Measurements of skin conductance and heart rate show that people have less of an aversion to images of real violence, if they have previously been exposed to violent television or violent video games. Measurements of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) allow researchers to look with new precision at the magnitude of brain processes that occur at particular times and at the activation of specific regions of the brain. A 2006 study by Bartholow et al., for example, showed that exposure to violent video games reduces aversion to scenes of real violence, as measured by a blip of voltage that typically occurs 300 milliseconds after sight of a gory image. A 2006 study by Murray et al. (see below) showed that violent scenes of television activated parts of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and motor activity. Yet another 2006 study, by Weber et al., showed that while players were engaged in violence during a video game, a brain region associated with emotional processing was suppressed, and one associated with cognitive processing was aroused, perhaps in order to reduce empathy and thereby improve game performance. In a 2005 study by Matthews et al., chronic adolescent players of violent video games scored the same as adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders on a test designed to assess a brain region responsible for inhibition and error correction. Attempting to explain the results of the various studies under review, the authors write: "Initial results suggest that, although video-game players are aware that they are engaging in fictitious actions, preconscious neural mechanisms might not differentiate fantasy from reality." [Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Bruce D. Bartholow, "Media Violence and Social Neuroscience," Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 2007.]
  • While a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device monitored their brain activity, eight children watched a video montage that included boxing scenes from Rocky IV and part of a National Geographic animal program for children, among other clips. The violent scenes activated many brain regions that the nonviolent scenes did not, mostly in the right hemisphere. These regions have been associated by other researchers with emotion, attention and arousal, detection of threat, episodic memory, and fight or flight response. The authors of the study speculate that "though the child may not be aware of the threat posed by TV violence at a conscious level . . . a more primitive system within his or her brain (amygdala, pulvinar) may not discriminate between real violence and entertainment fictional violence." In the activation of regions associated with long-term memory, the researchers saw a suggestion that the television violence might have long-term effects on the viewer. [John P. Murray, etal. "Children's Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI," Media Psychology, 2006.]
  • In a 2005 study, 213 video-game novices with an average age of twenty-eight were divided into two groups, and one group spent a month playing an average of 56 hours of a violent multi-player fantasy role-playing video game. Participants completed questionnaires to assess their aggression-related beliefs before and after the test month, and were asked before and after whether they had argued with a friend and whether they had argued with a romantic partner. The data showed no significant correlation between hours of game play and the measures of aggression, once the results were controlled for age, gender, and pre-test aggression scores. The authors note that there might be an effect too small for their study to detect, and that adults might be less sensitive to the exposure than children or adolescents. [Dmitri Williams and Marko Skoric, "Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game," Communication Monographs, June 2005. Andrea Lynn, "No Strong Link Seen Between Violent Video Games and Aggression," News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 9 August 2005.]
  • A 2007 book presented three studies of video-game violence's effect on school-age children. In the first study, 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds and 354 college students were asked to play one of several video games—either a nonviolent game, a violent game with a happy and cartoonish presentation, or a violent game with a gory presentation—and then to play a second game, during which they were told they could punish other player with blasts of noise (the blasts were not, in fact, delivered). Those who played violent games, whether cartoonish or gory, were more likely to administer punishments during the second game; playing violent games at home also raised the likelihood of punishing others. Children and college students behaved similarly. In the second study, 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more often the students reported playing violent video games, the more likely they were to have hostile personalities, to believe that violence was normal, and to behave aggressively, and the less likely they were to feel forgiving toward others. The correlation between game playing and violent behavior held even when the researchers controlled for gender and aggressive beliefs and attitudes. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In the third study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, about their exposure to violent media, beliefs about the world, and whether they had been in fights. Students were asked to rate one another's sociability and aggressiveness, and teachers were asked to comment on these traits and on academic performance. In just five months, children who played more video games darkened in their outlook on the world, and peers and teachers noticed that they became more aggressive and less amiable. The effect was independent of gender and of the children's level of aggression at the first measurement. Screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too; they only became more aggressive, however, when the content they saw during the screen time was violent. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

2. Do video games impair academic performance?

  • In a 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children, there were statistically significant differences in print and video-game use between students earning As and Bs and those earning Cs and below. On average, A-B students had read for pleasure 46 minutes and played video games for 48 minutes the previous day; C-and-below students had read for pleasure 29 minutes and played video games for 1 hour 9 minutes. Television watching seemed constant between the groups. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, page 47.]
  • A 2007 book presented results of a study in which 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In a related and similar study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, and screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here's a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books":

Notebook: "Twilight of the Books" (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER's Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

5 thoughts on “Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?”

  1. I wish I had time to read the whole post, but I don't. However, I at least want to congratulate you on your prize for your essay! I was very impressed by the essay when it appeared and have been following your blog ever since!

  2. I just wanted to say I love this blog! I found it while researching a paper, and it has yet to disappoint. OK, it's only been about two weeks, but still.

  3. On a more serious note, it is important to distinguish between different types of video games — violent versus non-violent, individual versus multiplayer — and also the length of engagement a player has with games in general. Casual players likely respond differently than more intense players.

    Also, while brain imaging information is interesting, a chemical or biological response doesn't necessarily always translate into violent or antisocial behaviors.

    Though this may fall in your "popular treatment" category, there is a body of literature on how many of these studies are self-selecting, i.e. kids tending towards violence choose to play violent video games, and that this type of play is cathartic, taking the place of rough and tumble games which young boys are rarely allowed to engage in anymore. I suspect you are aware of Steven Johnson's book "Everything bad is good for you"..?

    Thank you for the mention of the 'mean world' syndrome; it sounds fascinating.

  4. Hi, MW: You're right to bring up the question of self-selection. If researchers failed to account for it, their attempts to incriminate video games would be deeply flawed. Craig A. Anderson, however, did control for the child's general level of aggression (and for gender, which is a rough proxy for it) in analyzing the results of his data, and still found that violent video games increased aggressivity.

    In "Children, Adolescence, and Media Violence" (see above for link), Steven J. Kirsh takes up the "catharsis" theory, that is, the notion that violent media allow children to vent safely their aggressive impulses. Verdict: "For the last fifty years, not only has research consistently failed to empirically support the catharsis effect, but frequently the opposite effect has been found." In other words, research shows that exposure to violent media tends to promote aggressive behavior rather than serve as a safe outlet for aggressive impulses.

    As for brain imaging studies, they should indeed be taken with a grain of salt right now, because the field is quite young, and the equipment is so expensive that the sample sizes are usually quite small. But it holds promise, and I think there's some value in the clues that they provide, though I wouldn't value them as highly as, say, Anderson's results.

    I am aware of Steven Johnson's book. It's entertaining, but I don't think it should be taken too seriously. In an afterword, Johnson himself admits that he made little attempt to engage with the empirical evidence. In his defense, there was even less when he wrote his book than when I wrote my article.

    But on the few occasions that Johnson does try to produce evidence, he stumbles quite badly. In an end note, for example, he tries to support his claim that sophistication in television spurred a rise in intelligence by pointing to fluctuations in average verbal SAT scores. Unfortunately, average SAT scores can't be used to show trends in average intelligence, because the group of students who take the SAT varies from year to year, depending on the economy. To put it crudely, when the economy is doing well, more parents from middling socioeconomic backgrounds can afford to send their children to the fancy colleges that require the SAT. When times are flush, therefore, the SAT goes down. And when the economy contracts, only the children of the wealthy take the test, so the average score goes up.

    More important: The best way to test Johnson's theory would NOT be to see whether average intelligence rose or fell at the same time that video games and TV shows grew more sophisticated. Even if you found that they did, you would only have found a coincidence. The best way would be to take two groups of children, see to it that one group watched more TV and played more video games than the other, and then look at their academic performance over the next decade or so. That would prove or disprove causation. But it would be immoral to experiment like that on children, so the best we can hope for is correlation. That is, we can survey children on their current media habits and see how their academic performance fares. Many people have done such studies, and almost all the evidence suggests that entertainment television degrades intellectual performance. So Johnson's out of luck there. I only know of a handful of studies into correlations between video games and academic performance (they're listed immediately above), but they don't support Johnson's thesis either.

    Johnson would probably say that he's only arguing on behalf of superior television and video games, not the bad and crude kinds. But I think he's wildly overestimating the superiority of superior TV shows. To give an example: He boasts at one point in Everything Bad Is Good for You of how the TV show ER "doesn't talk down to its audience," and he praises its "willingness to immerse the audience in information that most viewers won't understand." To prove his point, he quotes at length a passage where a patient is said to be slipping into a "glucyna coma" and is diagnosed as having "peder permadicis." He writes that "the ratio of medical jargon to layperson translation is remarkably high," and he seems to be arguing that ER is deploying what in literary studies is sometimes called "the reality effect"—the unmotivated detail whose purpose is to bring to the audience some of the flavor of the real world's complexity and stubbornness.

    The somewhat embarrassing fact, however, is that ER was doing no such thing. Johnson jokes about having to watch the show "with a medical dictionary in hand," but in fact a medical dictionary would be no use in explaining "peder permadicis" or "glucyna coma." That's because they aren't real medical terms at all. They aren't a sign that television has expanded to take in complex and detailed information about the real world. Rather, they're a sign that television thinks so little of its audience that it counts on their failure to distinguish real medical terms from gobbledygook. And indeed, Johnson himself gives no sign of having known that the terms aren't real. That's somewhat surprising, because medical vocabulary draws on a fairly limited set of Greek and Latin roots, and it's easy to tell that these are fake. The "dilithium crystals" of Star Trek sound much more plausible.

  5. I can tell you now that I have worked as a video games programmer,. I'm pretty much a psychopath wanted on 2 planets,.. that one and the other one

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