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Does Violence in Media Cause Violent Crime?

woman with a sword

Konrad Bongard, freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, explores the controversial debate of whether violence in today’s media leads to violent crime.

The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said that “We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.” Unfortunately, in the ongoing debate on media violence, the ‘divine right’ of experts to disseminate ill-informed opinions seems deeply entrenched.

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According to the American Academy of Family Physicians:

That media violence leads to increased actual violence has been borne out by a massive body of literature. More than 1000 lab experiments, cross-sectional analyses, longitudinal studies, and epidemiologic studies support this hypothesis, as do meta-analyses… Media violence has also been shown to desensitize humans to violence… fear and a feeling of victimization.

A similar statement is available on the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as about five other major medical associations. However, a brief survey of the AAFP’s website reveals some questionable reasoning, to say the least.

In characterizing the extent of the violent panacea which plagues America, the AAFP notes that “the United States experienced 35 times as many gun deaths per capita as England and 285 times as many as Japan.” Fair enough. However, a problem emerges in seeking to assign causality, the AAFP insinuates that the cause of this is the ubiquity of violence in “American mass media.”

Wait — back up there for a minute.

Aren’t the other countries mentioned, such as England and Japan, also large consumers of violent media? Japan and the United Kingdom are both, along with the United States, among the ten countries in the world which watch the most television per capita. Much of the programming in the UK is American, while in Japan (which has a large domestic television industry) according to the Center for Media Literacy, “the amount of violence on Japanese and American television is roughly the same.”

The highest-grossing film of all time in the United Kingdom is the gritty Bond flick, Skyfall, while the majority of the highest-grossing Japanese films are in fact American. Japanese and British consumers also spend nearly as much as the United States on video games.  Canada leads the pack, and also has much lower rates of violent crime than the U.S.

Actually, extrapolating the methodology used by the AAFP, which confuses causality with correlation, one can actually argue the opposite — that exposure to violent media reduces violent crime. This is because countries like Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Somalia all have relatively low rates of television ownership and Internet access, and are also amongst the most dangerous in the world. Voila! Hard evidence. While we’re at it, we might as well attribute global warming to the invention of tee shirt clips, or HIV prevalence to new jack swing music.

“If one wants to understand why, in America, a relatively high rate of violent crime exists, it would be more instructive to survey the inequality which permeates American society than to try to pin it on media representations.”

The claim that violent American media (which is global) is the cause of the U.S.’s high violent crime rate is not the most farfetched one made by the AAFP.  Elsewhere, they cite a bevy of studies which supposedly connect exposure to violent media to aggressive behaviour, thereby irrefutably linking the decisions of individuals such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were responsible for the 1999 Columbine massacre, to media consumption. However, when one actually looks at the studies provided by the AAFP, they’re far from a smoking gun:

In the second study, 210 college students played either a violent (Wolfenstein 3D) or nonviolent video game (Myst). A short time later, the students who played the violent video game punished an opponent (received a noise blast with varying intensity) for a longer period of time than did students who had played the nonviolent video game. (“Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life”, 2010) 

Never mind the fact that, according to researchers at the University of Oxford and University of Rochester, frustration borne from playing video games owes to the difficulty of their mechanics, not the violent content therein (maybe we should ban all problem-solving activities?), there you have it, folks—one day the kids are blasting that confederate hard. The next, Columbine.

Columbine_Shooting_Security_Camera

Actually, while we’re on the subject of Columbine, it’s worth mentioning that the AAFP’s claim that the Columbine shooters “created a customized version of the game involving two shooters with unlimited ammunition, extra weapons, and defenseless victims — a fantasy which they later brought to reality in their high school” is patently false. Dylan Klebold didn’t create the levels any levels at all — he played DOOM online with Harris, and playtested one of the levels Harris made — and no level was ever created which fits the description provided by the AAFP. Clearly the sense of creativity which inspired Klebold to create DOOM levels is shared by the author of the AAFP’s media violence page, who has no reservation about inventing facts!

Not content with the standard laughable psychological studies, the AAFP also cites a paper called “Television and violence: the scale of the problem and where to go from her”, using it to claim that after “the introduction of television into various societies” the “homicide rate consistently doubled in different societies (United States, Canada, and South Africa) during the 10-15 year period after the introduction of television, whenever that happened to be.”

If the original researchers can be forgiven for thinking that television was the cause of the increased homicide rate in the abovementioned countries — the rate of homicides and the proliferation of television increased in partial party prior to 1990, and the study was published in 1992 — the AAFP can’t: they published their position of media violence in 2010. After 1990, the homicide rate in North America began to rapidly decline, while television viewership remained high, only diminishing somewhat in the 2000s due to competition with other media technologies.

Though maybe the AAFP should vet their sources better. According to Brandon S. Centerwall, the man who authored the study described, white South Africa was “a prosperous, industrialized ‘Western society’” prior to the introduction of television in 1975, which was apparently the cause of the violent that plagued the country over the next seventeen years. As opposed to, you know, widespread racial animosity and the existence of a large, impoverished population.

The truth is that violent media has always existed — from Aeschylus’ gory tragedies to The Bible tothe paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, as has the use of new cultural developments as a scapegoat for society’s problems (comic books, video games, rock n’ roll, and even Shakespearian theatre have all been subject to this!).  And rates of violent crime, for the most part, have not been correlated with these representations, but instead tend to be related to the social conditions of the society in question.

If one wants to understand why, in America, a relatively high rate of violent crime exists, it would be more instructive to survey the inequality which permeates American society than to try to pin it on media representations.

Or, you know, you could — like the AAFP — just blame it on DOOM.

Konrad Bongard is a freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications.  The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.  For a list of statistical references used in this article, or more information on Pardon Applications of Canada, call 866-383-9744 or email info@pardonapplications.com