In the summer of 2000, a committee of scholars was commissioned to write a chapter on the effects of media violence on youth for the Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence, published in January 2001. But their chapter was not included in the Surgeon General’s final report. The reason for the omission was unclear; however, there had been disagreement between the report’s authors—experts in the field of media and violence—and the Surgeon General’s office and the National Institue of Mental Health, regarding whether it was appropriate to include research not directed specifically at criminal violence.
After subjecting it to an additional round of peer review and revision, the American Psychological Society published a special report based on the omitted chapter in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in December, 2003. The thirty-page report, written by a team led by Craig Anderson and entitled The Influence of Media Violence on Youth (see comments for full citation), offers so much detail and insight that we cannot report on it here in a single article. This is part 1 of Cognitive Daily’s coverage.
Concerns about media violence are as old as the technology of television, and psychological research on media violence is almost as old as the concerns. Research has consistently shown that exposure to violent content–on television, in the movies, in music, and now in video games and on the Internet–leads to aggression. Responses have typically ranged from “no it doesn’t,” to downplaying the significance of the research, to “what’s so bad about aggression?” After all, when a successful athlete like Tiger Woods plays “aggressively” in a golf tournament, there is nothing but praise for his actions.
The report takes sharp aim at the notion that aggression is not bad. Most studies define “aggression” as behavior intended to harm another person. So when Tiger Woods attempts to drive the green on a short par-4, that wouldn’t meet the psychological definition of aggression. Some critics of research on media and aggression suggest that research shows only “aggressive thoughts” or “aggressive beliefs,” but in fact this report takes care to refer to “aggression” only when describing actual aggressive behavior.
Critics have also attempted to downplay the research by suggesting that recent evidence is not as strong as the original studies supporting the curbing of violence in the media, or that the impact of the media is not significant. However, the authors of the report have found that the evidence has gotten stronger over the years, and that it is stronger than much recent medical research. For example, the oft-reported study showing that taking aspirin can reduce the risk of heart attack was actually a much weaker correlation than any of the evidence Anderson and his colleagues cite supporting a link between media violence and aggression.
So why do medical studies get so much more attention than psychological research? Anderson et al. argue that it is because medical studies typically extrapolate their results to the entire population—so an effect found in, say, 10 out of a population of 30,000 study participants would be extrapolated to “100,000 Americans.” Psychological research tends to take the conservative approach in reporting results, saying a factor “explains one percent of the variance” of the effect being studied. This doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that one percent of America is almost three million people! And remember that in the case of aggression, a minimum of two people are involved in every act, so results can seem understated for that reason as well.
The report goes on to cover studies examining the effects of media violence, the scale of the impact, and possible solutions. Cognitive Daily’s coverage of the report will continue tomorrow.