The debate over how violence in video games, films and television correlates to a higher rate of violence in society has been raging since the 1920s, and it's only gotten more heated with the increase of mass shootings in the US. But a new study by clinical psychologist Christopher Ferguson from Stetson University in the US has shown that across several decades, there have been no significant links between the consumption of media violence and instances of societal violence.
In the past, researchers have investigated this issue by conducting lab experiments that test the aggression levels of people playing violent video games and watching violent films. But Ferguson argues that these lab tests aren't helpful, as they don't accurately mirror what goes on in real-life. So he decided to take a look across several recent decades to see if he could spot any trends.
First off, Ferguson analysed the instances of movie violence and actual homicide rates between the years of 1920 and 2005. He used independent rating experts to evaluate the frequency and level of violence in the most popular movies released during these decades and then correlated the data to homicide rates in corresponding years. No link could be made, he found, except perhaps in the mid-20th century.
At this point in history, homicide rates and instances of violent movies both increased briefly, but then the trend reversed after 1990, to the point where movie violence became correlated with fewer homicides. This was also the case during the two decades between the 1920s and '40s.
Next, Ferguson investigated the consumption of violent video games and and the rates of youth violence from 1996 to 2011. Independent ratings experts from the US Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) were used to quantify the frequency and level of violence in popular video games between these years and the data were correlated against federal information on the rate of youth violence at the time.
While the data did appear to show a link between an increase in violent video game consumption and a decrease in youth violence, just as it did for films after 1990, Ferguson is not prepared to say the result is anything other than a coincidence. But what he can say for sure is that while media violence is definitely being consumed more now than ever before, there is absolutely no clear evidence to link media violence with societal violence.
The results have been published in the Journal of Communication.
"Society has a limited amount of resources and attention to devote to the problem of reducing crime. There is a risk that identifying the wrong problem, such as media violence, may distract society from more pressing concerns such as poverty, education and vocational disparities and mental health," Ferguson said in a press release. "This research may help society focus on issues that really matter and avoid devoting unnecessary resources to the pursuit of moral agendas with little practical value."
Which is basically the polite way of saying "everyone shut up and find something that's actually real to fret about."