Media Violence and Aggression

Media Violence Definition

Media violence includes all forms of mass communication that depict the threat to use force, the act of using force, or the consequences of the use of force against animate beings (including cartoon characters or other species as well as humans). There are many forms of media, including TV programs, movies, video games, comic books, and music. More than five decades of scientific data lead to the irrefutable conclusion that exposure to violent media increases aggression. About 300 studies involving more than 50,000 subjects have been conducted on this topic.

Media Violence Effects

Media Violence and AggressionExposure to violent media can have several undesirable effects. One effect is that people who consume a lot of violent media become less sympathetic to victims of violence. In one study, people who played violent video games assigned less harsh penalties to criminals than did those who played nonviolent games. People also perceive victims as injured less and display less empathy toward them after exposure to violent media. One reason why people may become more tolerant of violence and less sympathetic toward victims is because they become desensitized to it over time. Research has shown that after consuming violent media, people have lower heart rate and blood pressure in response to real depictions of violence.

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In addition to desensitizing people to the effects of violence, violent media also increase aggressive thoughts. One result is that people who consume a lot of violent media are more likely to attend to hostile information and expect others to behave in a hostile manner. They may also interpret ambiguous situations in the worst possible light, assuming that the behavior of others reflects hostility rather than other, more positive traits such as assertiveness. Some researchers have also found that violent media also increase aggressive feelings. Most importantly, exposure to violent media also makes people act more aggressively toward others.

Violent Video Games

Although most studies have focused on violent television and movies, the same general pattern of effects appears to be present after exposure to different forms of media, including violent music, violent comic books, and violent video games. The effects of violent video games on people’s attitudes toward victims of violence are of particular concern. Feeling empathy requires taking the perspective of the victim, whereas violent video games encourage players to take the perspective of the perpetrator. Violent video games should also have a larger effect on aggressive behavior than violent TV programs and films. Watching a violent TV program or film is a passive activity, whereas playing a violent video game is active. Research has shown that people learn better when they are actively involved. Viewers of violent shows may or may not identify with violent characters, whereas players of violent video games are forced to identify with violent characters. Any rewards that come from watching violent shows are indirect. The rewards that come from playing violent video games are direct. The player gets points or advances to the next level of the game by killing others. The player also sees impressive visual effects and hears verbal praise (e.g., “Nice shot!” “Impressive!”) after behaving aggressively.

Different Types of Media Violence Studies

Experimental studies have shown that exposure to media violence causes people to become more tolerant of aggressive behavior and to behave more aggressively toward others immediately after exposure. Although laboratory experiments involving noise blasts and electric shocks have been criticized for their somewhat artificial nature, field experiments have produced similar results. For example, in one field experiment, delinquent boys who were shown violent films every night for five nights were more likely than were those shown nonviolent films to get into fights with other boys. Similar effects have been observed with nondelinquent children who saw a single episode of a violent children’s television program.

Another criticism about experimental studies is that they do not measure actual criminal violence. Although acting aggressively is not always a desirable trait, it is not the same as breaking the law or committing serious acts of violence. But stories of copycat violence tend to make the public most concerned about the effects of violent media. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students who killed 13 people and wounded 23 in the Columbine massacre, were both avid players of violent video games. Before the massacre, both of them played a specially modified version of the video game Doom. In a videotape released after the massacre, Harris refers to his gun as “Arlene,” which is the name of the protagonist’s love interest in the Doom novels. This connection suggests that consuming violent media and aggression are related, but does violent media actually cause criminal violence?

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to conduct a safe and ethical laboratory study on the effect of violent media on violent behavior. However, it is probably not so much the immediate effect of media violence on violent crime that is of concern but, rather, the aggregated long-term effects. Children are exposed to about 10,000 violent crimes in the media per year, and each of these has a cumulative effect on their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Longitudinal studies have shown that exposure to violent media is related to serious violent and antisocial behavior. For example, the amount of violent media consumed as a child is related to how many fights a person will get into in high school. Similarly, men who watched violent media during childhood were nearly twice as likely to have assaulted their spouse 15 years later. In another longitudinal study, consumption of violent media at age 14 predicted violent crimes committed at age 22.

What Types of Media Are Most Harmful?

All violent media do not have the same effect, and all people are not affected the same way by violent media. For example, how violence is depicted is important. Both realistic violence and violence that goes unpunished increase the likelihood of aggression. Also, pairing violence with sex seems to have a particularly strong effect on men’s aggressive attitudes and behavior toward women.

Who Is Most Affected by Media Violence?

Who watches violent media is also important. A number of personality traits seem to place some viewers at greater risk than others. One key variable is the trait of aggressiveness. People who are characteristically aggressive seem to be more affected by violent media than are people who are not characteristically aggressive. However, the relationship between trait aggression and violent media is complex, and these findings only represent trait differences at a single point in time. Exposure to media violence also causes trait aggressiveness, which in turn increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. This suggests that the short-term effects of violent media observed in experimental research may become increasingly pronounced within individuals as they are repeatedly exposed to violence, leading to a downward spiral into greater levels of aggression.

Importantly, longitudinal studies have also addressed the causal direction of this downward spiral. It could be argued that people who behave aggressively are more likely to watch violent television. Researchers have found that although exposure to aggressive media as a child is related to acts of aggression later in life, aggression as a child is unrelated to exposure to violent media as a young adult, effectively ruling out the possibility that a predisposition to watch violent media is causing this effect.

Gender norms or sex differences may also play a role. Some studies have found that boys are more influenced by media violence than girls are, but these effects are inconsistent. Other researchers find little difference between boys and girls. Longitudinal studies may provide some explanation for this inconsistency. Gender differences in aggression have decreased over time, possibly because more aggressive female models have appeared on TV and because it has become more socially acceptable for females to behave aggressively.

When someone is exposed to violent media is also important. Although all age groups are equally susceptible to the short-term effects of violent media on aggression, exposure to violent television at a young age is a particularly strong predictor of violent behavior in later life. It is not yet clear whether this finding is simply a result of additional years of exposure to violent media or a result of exposure to violence during a critical period of children’s social development.


Although many individual differences moderate the impact of violent media on aggressive and even violent behavior, on the whole, consumption of violent media increases aggressive and antisocial behavior. The effect of violent media on aggression is not trivial, either. Although the typical effect size for exposure to violent media is small by conventional standards and is thus dismissed by some critics, this small effect translates into significant consequences for society as a whole, which may be a better standard by which to measure the magnitude of the effect. A recent review found that the effect of exposure to violent media is stronger than the effect of secondhand smoke on lung cancer, the effect of asbestos on cancer, and the effect of lead poisoning on mental functioning. Although media violence is not the only factor that increases aggression and violence, it is an important factor.


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