Does violence on TV and in the media really lead to violent behavior?

We’ve become accustomed the notion that media violence is bad for children, and that exposure to it can lead to all kinds of problems, including violent behavior. Those us who remember Columbine in 1999 will certainly recall reports that the killers played the videogame Doom and listened to Marilynn Manson before they went on their tragic rampage. Less dramatic anecdotes pop up regularly.

But there’s a new, detailed analysis of media studies that raises questions about how close a correlation there is between media and violent behavior. In this month’s issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, two researchers have published “The Public Health Risks of Media Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review.”

Basically, the author conducted a study of studies, known as a meta-analysis, of articles exploring the link between the media and violent behavior. Their search dated back a decade (1998-2008), and they compiled 25 studies that included 12,436 subjects in all.

The results counter the conventional wisdom that media violence begets real world violence. The authors, in their analysis, found a correlation so small that they concluded “if the goal of society is to reduce violence, scientific, political, and economic efforts would likely bear more fruit in other realms.”

In explaining the disconnect between the prior conclusions and their findings, the authors pointed to a number of problems:

* Publication Bias in many of the studies: Basically, authors and reviewers are more likely to accept and publish data that supports one class of results over the other. In this analysis, the suggestion is that results showing that media exposure leads to violence gets more weight than results that are inconclusive or opposite.
* Poor methodologies that don’t clearly or strictly measure the effect of media violence
* Unmeasured effects of other factors that lead to violence
* The politics of media violence: “the concern remains that media violence reserach may continue to be driven primarily by ideological or political beliefs rather than objectivity…there may be the perfect storm of political opportunism, a union of far-right and far-left social agendas, and scientific dogmatism that has impaired the scientific community’s ability to critically examine this research field.

So now what? Should we put our kids in front of the TV while we watch reruns of the A-Team? Not likely — a better piece of advice might be to stay cautious about TV and media violence and hope good researchers can overcome and dogma about media violence and design good studies that give us better information.

Rahul K. Parikh is a pediatrician and a writer.  He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Rahul K. Parikh.

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