A few years ago, I was researching the issue of whether tobacco advertising makes people smoke when I came across a paper with an unintentionally revealing subtitle: "The Evidence Is There for Those Who Wish to See It." Much the same could be said about the impact of fictional violence on real-life crime.
Witness how the activists and politicians who reflexively blame the media for anti-social behavior have latched onto Surgeon General David Satcher's recent report on youth violence to support their position. This is odd, since the report does not conclude that exposure to violent entertainment during childhood is an important risk factor for violent crime.
The report, which was commissioned after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, says "the strongest risk factors during childhood are involvement in serious but not necessarily violent criminal behavior, substance use, being male, physical aggression, low family socioeconomic status or poverty and anti-social parents -- all individual or family attributes or conditions."
Violent entertainment is barely mentioned in the main body of the report; instead it's relegated to a section in the back. "We did not find the media to be a major factor," Satcher confessed. "The impact was very small compared to other things."
The boldest statement on the topic in Satcher's press release -- the sentence that opponents of violent entertainment will be quoting -- says, "The report found strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase children's 'aggressive behavior' in the short term." Note the words "can" and "in the short term." Also note that we're talking about "aggressive behavior," as opposed to violence.
These qualifications are important. A 5-year-old who knocks around an inflatable clown doll after watching a film in which a man attacks a similar toy is not necessarily destined for a life of crime.
Field studies, which avoid the artificiality of such experiments by observing behavior outside the laboratory, likewise measure "aggression" -- which can include insults, threats and pushing -- and do not look at behavior over the long term. Furthermore, the results of these studies are anything but consistent.
"The field experiments show almost nothing," says Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto psychologist who has done a comprehensive review of the literature. "It's not that 60 percent of them get good results and 40 percent of them don't -- which would be pretty iffy from a scientific point of view, but at least substantial. It's more like 25 percent get supportive results and 75 percent either get nothing or get mixed results."
So even when it comes to data on short-term effects that do not amount to actual violence, calling the evidence "strong" is a real stretch. But at least the surgeon general's report does not draw sweeping conclusions about the impact of TV and movie violence on crime rates. Satcher noted that "it was extremely difficult to distinguish between the relatively small long-term effects of exposure to media violence and those of other influences."
Since the team that produced the report was, according to the Los Angeles Times, "dominated by researchers who have long accepted the basic premise that media violence fosters aggression," such caution is striking. It speaks volumes about the weakness of the evidence.
Inevitably, the report calls for more studies, but researchers trying to link flying bullets on the screen to dead bodies in real life are never going to find a smoking gun. As the report notes, "violence stems from a complex interaction of individuals with their environment," and research that would isolate the impact of a factor which plays a minor role at most is impractical, not to mention unethical.
Here is what such a study would look like: Take a few thousand babies and randomly assign them to environments where they are either shielded from or regularly exposed to media violence. Otherwise, treat them exactly the same. Follow them for 25 years or so, and see how much violent crime they commit.
Since this study will never be performed, critics of media violence are reduced to distorting the evidence or relying on impressionistic arguments. Children are constantly bombarded by violent images, they say, and it defies common sense to claim they're not affected.
The issue, of course, is not whether they're affected but how they're affected. And if some kids are so depraved that violent TV shows can turn them into criminals, getting rid of the shows is not the answer.