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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Media violence and criminal behaviour

Between science and policy making

On March 11, 2009, 17-year-old Tim Kretschmer entered the Albertville junior high school in the small town of Winnenden, Germany, armed with a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition. In less than an hour, he shot nine former schoolmates and three teachers; on the run from the police to Wendlingen, he highjacked a car and killed three more people, before he finally committed suicide. The tragedy left his and the victims' relatives, teachers, and the general public petrified with questions regarding the motive for this attack, and how a young man developed into a mass homicide perpetrator.

The debates about the influence of media violence on behaviour show no sign of ending.
Photo credit: arker from
The debate about the causes of Kretschmer's rampage went on in the media for weeks, involving politicians and professionals, as well as witnesses and relatives expressing different theories of the decisive factors, ranging from failure in parenthood to insufficient gun control (even though the German Weapon Act already contains one of the strictest gun control laws in the world). And as with other similar tragedies that happened at different places around the world, violence in digital games was offered as a potential explanation for his actions as well. Winnenden citizens formed a group that called for a public disposal of all "killer games" in a large trash bin they placed in the city centre of Stuttgart. In an unparalleled reaction to such an event, the large department store chain Kaufhof decided to stop selling any movies or games with an age rating of 18+ nation-wide.

The shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 prompted a similar debate in the U.S. on causes of violent behaviours and how to prevent them, including gun control, mental health reform, and media violence. In 2013 the White House17 reacted with an action plan including stricter background checks for gun sales and precautionary measures at public institutions (e.g., schools). It also called on researchers to increase their efforts in identifying sources of (and countermeasures to) criminal behaviour, particularly the link with violent media use, for which the administration promised additional research funds. In the area of media violence effects research, additional funds and efforts could pose a great opportunity, but they also bear a certain risk.

Protests in support of stricter gun control laws outside the White House in 2013.
Photo by Elvert Barnes (creative commons)
The empirical evidence on the effects of media violence on aggressive behaviour and violent crime can best be described as inconclusive. The reason for this is not so much a lack of studies, as there are hundreds of laboratory experiments investigating the link between violent media, particularly digital games, and subsequent aggressiveness (with many pointing to a relationship, and some not). The problem is that measuring aggressiveness accurately is an intricate enterprise, and the variables observed in those studies often have very little resemblance with human experiences outside psychological laboratories6,12. Measures of such behaviours typically include procedures like spicing a bowl of chili for someone else with the hotness of the sauce selected being the indicator of aggressiveness11, or the volume of white noise that is used to punish another participant in a reaction time game8. Other researchers measure other more distant facets of aggression, such as the accessibility of aggressive thoughts, e.g. how long it takes to identify words such as "gun" or "kill"2 after consuming violent media. Quite often the stimuli used in experiments as "violent" and "non-violent" media differ on so many levels that it is quite difficult to assess whether any obtained effects were caused by the violent content, and not something else (for example, Mortal Kombat: Deception[1] and Dance Dance Revolution Max 2[2] in the experiment of Williams, 200919). The few longitudinal studies investigating consequences of repeated exposure to violent media tend to establish rather weak links20), or none at all7. Conversely, they do show that individuals with an aggressive personality prefer violent media18.

Arguments on both sides of the gun control debate can be highly emotive. Photo by Amy Morris (creative commons)
This would not be as much of an issue if the inconclusive state of research would not be frequently misrepresented by politicians, pundits, and scholars. Violent media effects research is a field in which science and ideology tend to mix10), with warnings of potential hazards vastly overstating what the current evidence yields, and ultimately damaging the credibility of media effects research altogether. Independent reviews by the governments of Sweden14 and Australia3, and the U.S. Supreme Court4 all concluded that there is currently no compelling evidence supporting the notion that violent media would increase crime rates or facilitate problematic behaviours in minors. And yet, the claims of violent media being a public health risk persist, such as being responsible for up to 30% of all societal violence15, or having the same effect on violence as condoms do on the prevention of sexually transmitted HIV 1 – a rather curious comparison, to say the least. The occasionally extreme responses to tragedies and serious crimes like school shootings can lead to what Gauntlett (2005) defined a "moral panic"9,5, in which overt lifestyles or innocuous behaviours (like media use) are considered a hazard for people in a society. In a moral panic, regulating violent media is simply "the right thing to do" for people who believe they are a cause for violent crime. Moreover, media could – in theory – be policed fairly easily by official agencies compared to more covert societal issues like poverty, equality of opportunities, which are usually rather intangible and difficult to combat. Researchers making extreme statements about hazardous effects of media in these environments do not inform public policy, but simply crank up the heat in a significant debate.

Antisocial and criminal behaviour is often blamed on media violence. But are games and movies really to blame? Photo credit: Peter "anemoneprojectors" (creative commons)
Since the available evidence into the effects of violent media on antisocial behaviour in the general population is inconclusive13), I see the future task of researchers in this field as being to identify the specific scenarios - particularly specific environmental circumstances, configurations of personality attributes and patterns of media usage; in which people could be prone to negative effects from violence in games or movies.

If we are concerned about increases in criminal behaviour, then we should turn away from convenient student samples and start investigating the media uses of violent offenders (e.g., Surette, in press16) or individuals from high-risk groups (e.g., adolescent victims of family violence). The identification of risk (and resilience) factors that could facilitate influences of popular media, as well as "healthy" and "unhealthy" media use patterns, are key to refining our understanding of the mechanisms behind them. Past research has, with a few exceptions, not been undertaken to inform public policy, but to scrutinize processes in laboratories which can only be generalized to societal violence with appropriate care.

Thus, the debate on potential effects of violent media will certainly continue in public and the scientific community. While the additional funds for media effects research issued by the White House do not necessarily have to be just part of a new moral panic, but the scientific community must be wary of potential biases conveyed by this call. However, with due care, this could be a great opportunity to restore credibility to media effects research, and constructively inform public policy to reduce criminal behaviours and societal violence.

Malte Elson is one of our content writers. He graduated in psychology, and is pursuing his PhD on frustrating experiences in digital games. Currently he works as a research associate in the ERC project SOFOGA at the department of communication, University of Münster (Germany). His research interests include digital games and aggression, media effects research methods, and the social aspects of co-playing.

why don't all these papers have links?

Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N. M., et al. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(3), 81–110. doi: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2003.pspi_1433.x

Anderson, C. A., & Carnagey, N. L. (2009). Causal effects of violent sports video games on aggression: Is it competitiveness or violent content? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 731–739. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.019

Australian Government Attorney-General's Department. (2010). Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression. Barton, Australia. Retrieved from

Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn., 564 U.S. (2011). (link)

Ferguson, C. J. (2008). The school shooting/violent video game link: Causal relationship or moral panic? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 5(1-2), 25–37. doi: 10.1002/jip.76

Ferguson, C. J. (2011). The wild west of assessment. Measuring aggression and violence in video games. In L. Annetta & S. C. Bronack (Eds.), Serious Educational Game Assessment (pp. 43–56). Rotterdam: Sense. doi: 10.1007/978-94-6091-329-7_3

Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, C., Garza, A., & Jerabeck, J. M. (2012). A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: A 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 46(2), 141–146. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.10.014

Ferguson, C. J., Smith, S. M., Miller-Stratton, H., Fritz, S., & Heinrich, E. (2008). Aggression in the laboratory: Problems with the validity of the modified Taylor competitive reaction time test as a measure of aggression in media violence studies. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 17(1), 118–132. doi: 10.1080/10926770802250678

Gauntlett, D. (2005). Moving experiences: Media effects and beyond. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey.

10 Grimes, T., Anderson, J. A., & Bergen, L. A. (2008). Media violence and aggression. Science and ideology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

11 Lieberman, J. D., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & McGregor, H. A. (1999). A hot new way to measure aggression: Hot sauce allocation. Aggressive Behavior, 25(5), 331–348. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2337(1999)25:5<331::AID-AB2>3.0.CO;2-1

12 Ritter, D., & Eslea, M. (2005). Hot sauce, toy guns, and graffiti: A critical account of current laboratory aggression paradigms. Aggressive Behavior, 31(5), 407–419. doi: 10.1002/ab.20066

13 Savage, J., & Yancey, C. (2008). The effects of media violence exposure on criminal aggression: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(6), 772–791. doi: 10.1177/0093854808316487

14 Statens Medieråd. (2011). Våldsamma datorspel och aggression. En översikt av forskningen 2000-2011. [Violent computer games and agggression. An overview of the research 2000-2011]. Stockholm, Sweden.(link)

15 Strasburger, V. C. (2007). Go ahead punk, make my day: It's time for pediatricians to take action against media violence. Pediatrics, 119(6), e1398–e1399. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-0083

16 Surette, R. (in press). Cause or catalyst: The interaction of real world and media crime models. American Journal of Criminal Justice. doi: 10.1007/s12103-012-9177-z

17 The White House. (2013). Now is the time. The president's plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence. Washington, D.C. (link)

18 Von Salisch, M., Vogelgesang, J., Kristen, A., & Oppl, C. (2011). Preference for violent electronic games and aggressive behavior among children: The beginning of the downward spiral? Media Psychology, 14(3), 233–258. doi: 10.1080/15213269.2011.596468

19 Williams, K. D. (2009). The effects of frustration, violence, and trait hostility after playing a video game. Mass Communication and Society, 12(3), 291–310. doi: 10.1080/15205430802461087

20 Willoughby, T., Adachi, P. J. C., & Good, M. (2012). A longitudinal study of the association between violent video game play and aggression among adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 48(4), 1044–1057. doi: 10.1037/a0026046

[1] Midway. (2004). Mortal Kombat: Deception. Chicago, IL: Midway.
[2] Konami. (2003). Dance Dance Revolution Max 2. Tokyo, Japan: Konami.