Aurora Incident: Does Violent Media Cause Aggressive Behavior?

Published on July 28, 2012

max payne 3 violent shooting game

For years there has been a controversy surrounding the question of a causal link between exposure to violent media and aggressive behavior. At least as far back as 1986 when the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released, the public has been divided over whether not such media has a detrimental affect on the psychology of game players.

Vice City engaged players in gunplay to resolve an inter-ethnic gang war in a fictionalized representation of Miami, Florida. Similarly, Final Fantasy VIII caught a lot of attention in the year 2000, when Jose’ Rabadon Pardo, claiming that he was executing a mission from the game’s Squall Leonhart character, murdered his father, mother and sister with a katana. There are several reports which present convincingly and unconvincingly information to support correlations between violent media and aggressive behavior.

The Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health, for example published a report which found no conclusive link between video game usage and violent activity. Likewise, the The Journal of Adolescent Health and the British Medical Journal have published reports that fail to identify a causal relationship between the two factors. As much as reports like these do not declare a correlation between media content and viewer behavior, they have placed themselves squarely on one side of the argument.

On the other side of the argument are organizations such as the American Psychological Association which asserts, "psychological research confirms that violent video games can increase children's aggression, but that parents moderate the negative effects"1. There are also individual researchers such as Caroline Fitzpatrick, PhD whose study titled “Early Exposure to Media Violence and Later Child Adjustment” 
concludes, “the notion that access to early childhood violent television represents a threat to population health and should be discouraged by adult caregivers.”2

A particularly comprehensive study that I think should be mentioned one by Kevin D. Browne and Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis titled The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: a public-health approach.

The Browne study emphasizes that “there is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and video, and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially in boys.”

The paper also claims, “the UNESCO Global Violent Media study in which UNESCO reviewed other research findings, suggests “everyone is negatively affected in some way by media violence, but that these affects depend on an individual’s cognitive appraisal and physical and social environment.” The studies referenced by the Brown paper were particularly instructive because they examined worldwide correlations between countries. While many of the studies did not find correlations, others did. Those that did fell into two categories—weak correlations, which might be explained away with study method inconsistencies or statistical anomalies; and those that identified strong correlations. Still, these became statistically significant after adding all of the studies’ results together. One particularly unambiguous conclusion stated:

“A significant association was reported between the amount of time spent watching television during adolescence and early adulthood…and the likelihood of subsequent antisocial behavior….”3

I found it interesting that the Browne paper authors endeavored to differentiate media types during their research. For example, a portion of their study concerned what they referred to as “passive” violence. This category included violence that might be encountered in television shows and movie theaters. “Active” violence, on the other hand would be experienced while playing video games.

Joker in the dark knight movie
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters on Friday that the Aurora shooter had portrayed himself as Batman's arch-rival, the Joker. source

Additionally, the authors of the Browne paper appreciated the multifactorial nature of their research topic, such as social and individual factor that might contribute to a person’s tendency toward violence. The study found that a person was more inclined to manifest an aggressive personality if there was a stepfather in the home. Said another way, a stepfather in the home was evidence of a previous family breakdown which seems to have a direct correlation with aggression of the involved children.

A good researcher recognizes that correlation is not causality, so the Browne study reversed the question and examined the idea that maybe the supposed correlation exists because violent kids like to play violent video games and see violent movies.

A topic neglected in the current literature that I believe would make a worthwhile subject of research is the question of the effect of sports related viewing on viewer aggression. For instance--is a teenage boy who watches boxing and American football on television more or less aggressive that one who spends his time watching science programs? Does a little girl who is enrolled in ballet classes differ in temperament than one who attends learns capoeira--a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance and music?



1 American Psychological Association. Violent Video Games — Psychologists Help Protect Children from Harmful Effects
2 Fitzpatrick, C. Early Exposure to Media Violence and Later Child Adjustment 
 Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 
May 2012 33:4 291-297
3 Johnson JG, Cohen P, Smailes EM, Kasen S, Brook JS. Television viewing and aggressive behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Science 2002; 295: 2468–71.  

Category(s):Aggression & Violence, Child and/or Adolescent Issues

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”