The Link Between Media Violence and Real-Life Aggression

By on Sep 24, 2013 in Gender in the Media | 0 comments

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In high school my psychology teacher asked the class whether we thought violent music contributed to violent crime in the real world. His question was prompted by the increasing number of school shootings taking place across the country, in particular the Columbine Shooting that occurred on April 20, 1999. News organizations later reported the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were fans of Marilyn Manson’s goth music and possibly  were even inspired by his dark lyrics to carry out their massacre of 12 high school students and one teacher. Many other media pundits, however, said the theory was a load of crap. My classmates and I agreed. We reasoned other psychological and social factors were to blame for Harris and Klebold’s descent into madness and bloody vengeance (indeed, it was later determined Harris was probably a psychopath). I opined dark music could have an effect, but only in cases where the individual was already ready to pull the trigger, so to speak. In other words, maybe it could serve as a sort of final, encouraging push to a person who had already “lost it.” It certainly was not going to manipulate a mentally well-adjusted person; dark music would only impact the crazies who were already brooding and fantasizing about how to commit a violent crime. Then there’s the issue of causation versus correlation. Wouldn’t the crazies seek out this type of music out in the first place to affirm their deranged sentiments?

By Nate Londa:

Photo by Nate Londa

That high school discussion took place back in 2002-2003, but I still agree with our class conclusion…for the most part. I don’t think violent media – be it music, TV or video games – will suddenly brainwash healthy, well-rounded individuals into committing violent crimes. That’s also the implicit assumption of my Jackie the Ripper: Where Are All the Female Serial Killers on TV? post that appeared on Feministe. As TV ratings show, lots of people enjoy watching gory TV shows, from Dexter to the Following. For whatever reason it gives us a thrill – not justification to go out and commit murders ourselves.

In my blog post, I wrote I believe many people are fascinated and enthralled by serial killers not only because they give us a unique look at pure evil, but also because many of us, on some level, derive pleasure from these dark scenes and topics. Maybe we even admire the killers in some ways (note the word, ‘some.’) Why else do so many documentaries, TV shows and films dwell on the topic and dredge up old cases that were solved decades ago? I do believe many viewers are pumped up by these shows. They certainly excite us. You can’t just say people watch because they like the idea of trying to solve a difficult case. Good-guy detectives aren’t really the main focus of series like Hannibal and Dexter – two shows, by the way, that romanticize the whole notion of the serial killer.

But the key point is this: I think viewers admire or identify with some facets of the personalities of the evildoers on these shows. Obviously, I doubt very many people derive any pleasure from watching innocent men, women and children get butchered. That’s definitely the number one issue preventing viewers from rooting for these characters wholeheartedly (duh!). But at least in the case of Dexter, who primarily kills people bad people who deserve it, what’s not to love? Besides his method, how is he any different from the likes of shoot-em-up action heroes, like Rambo, the Bride in Kill Bill, that guy from Die Hard or James Bond? Fans have no qualms about loving these characters or daydreaming that they are them, and they’re just as deadly!

The public captivation with serial killers is really no different. Viewers may not love Joe Carrol from The Following, but they certainly like the idea that someone can be brilliant enough to outsmart an entire police system or charismatic enough to have a bevy of devotees at your beck and call. With Hannibal, it’s his creepy brilliance and sophistication. Above all, it’s the power these characters possess. Do viewers secretly fantasize about being these characters? Of course they do, just minus the killing innocent people part.

Likewise, people love Tony Soprano and Walter White from Breaking Bad, but do viewers themselves want to become the leader of a ruthless mafia or start producing meth in their basements? No. They’re just drawn to the concept of having that much power and control, especially the power to instill fear in others. It’s always about power.

Yeah, feel that power!

So, as I argued in my blog post, it makes sense viewers love these shows because it provides a cathartic release. We get to explore being a total badass without actually becoming one in the real world. And this should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t think most lovers of these shows want to join forces with real-life serial killers, precisely because the latter are real-life sadistic, evil animals. Who really wants to be associated with supporting death and cruelty in the living flesh (besides other crazy people and religious extremists)? But the same rules don’t apply on the small screen. We don’t watch in fear that this may happen to us or our loved ones, and we know the gore will be cleaned up within an hour. We can watch comfortably knowing that, if it’s a documentary, the killer is locked up safely behind bars. Or, if it’s a fictional show, it’s all make believe anyway. In both cases, we are detached from the actual impact of these vicious crimes and this gives us a vehicle through which to explore our own fantasies, aggression or even twisted thoughts in a safe and socially-acceptable way.

But what if I’m wrong? What if instead of providing a cathartic release, there is no release? What if violent media just stirs up our blood to the point where it subconsciously pushes us to commit violence in real life?

That’s what some of the commentators on Feministe opined. And they’re not entirely wrong. Here are the facts: we just don’t know whether media violence leads people to commit violent crimes in the real world. Studies on this topic are a mixed bag. Some have shown playing a violent video game or watching violent TV increases aggression moderately in the short term. Yet others show long-term or excessive exposure to violent media increases antisocial behavior in the long-run, too. And yet other research has found no link at all! According to the New York Times:

Many similar studies have found the same thing: A dose of violent gaming makes people act a little more rudely than they would otherwise, at least for a few minutes after playing.

It is far harder to determine whether cumulative exposure leads to real-world hostility over the long term. Some studies in schools have found that over time digital warriors get into increasing numbers of scrapes with peers — fights in the schoolyard, for example. In a report published last summer, psychologists at Brock University in Ontario found that longer periods of violent video game playing among high school students predicted a slightly higher number of such incidents over time.

“None of these extreme acts, like a school shooting, occurs because of only one risk factor; there are many factors, including feeling socially isolated, being bullied, and so on,” said Craig A. Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University. “But if you look at the literature, I think it’s clear that violent media is one factor; it’s not the largest factor, but it’s also not the smallest.”

Most researchers in the field agree with Dr. Anderson, but not all of them. Some studies done in schools or elsewhere have found that it is aggressive children who are the most likely to be drawn to violent video games in the first place; they are self-selected to be in more schoolyard conflicts. And some studies are not able to control for outside factors, like family situation or mood problems.

“This is a pool of research that, so far, has not been very well done,” said Christopher J. Ferguson, associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University and a critic of the field whose own research has found no link. “I look at it and I can’t say what it means.”

Some studies also seem to support my theory that violent media provides a healthy aggression release. From the same article:

In a working paper now available online, Dr. Ward and two colleagues examined week-by-week sales data for violent video games, across a wide range of communities. Violence rates are seasonal, generally higher in summer than in winter; so are video game sales, which peak during the holidays. The researchers controlled for those trends and analyzed crime rates in the month or so after surges in sales, in communities with a high concentrations of young people, like college towns.

“We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes,” said Dr. Ward, whose co-authors were A. Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Benjamin Engelstätter of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany.

No one knows for sure what these findings mean. It may be that playing video games for hours every day keeps people off the streets who would otherwise be getting into trouble. It could be that the games provide “an outlet” that satisfies violent urges in some players — a theory that many psychologists dismiss but that many players believe.

This New York Times article refers primarily to studies on violent video games, but violent TV shows also generate the same conflicting and hard-to-interpret results. What is clear from both of these articles is, if violent media has any impact at all, it impacts children the most. Children should not be allowed to watch excessive amounts of TV or play violent video games for hours on end. But what counts as excessive depends on the researcher. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests watching TV for more than two hours a day for kids two and older is detrimental.

Regardless, here’s the really important part of many of these studies: Among children, boys are affected the most. That’s because they spend more time watching TV than girls. As a result, boys are also more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial behavior or be convicted of a crime or violent crime in early adulthood. Note, that New Zealand study claims the association between TV viewing and subsequent antisocial behavior was the same for boys and girls in the study, even though actual antisocial outcomes were less common in women (because, as a whole, they didn’t watch as much TV when they were young as the men did). Moreover, when the researchers controlled for confounding factors, the association between adolescent TV viewing and subsequent adult antisocial personality disorders and criminal convictions was found to be significant. But the association between TV viewing and violent criminal convictions was not. So even this study admits it can’t prove the so-called link between TV viewing and violent crimes in real life.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of Academic Help blog.

Lastly, the study didn’t monitor what programs children were watching, so these researchers don’t know how many actual acts of violence the kids witnessed via the screen. It could be TV in general, irrespective of content, is to blame for antisocial behavior because it limits kids’ face-to-face interaction with peers. That said, we all know violence on TV is common, as the researchers noted too. So it’s not really that much of a stretch to say the kids probably watched a robust amount of violent content (even in cartoon form).

Anyway, a link with criminal convictions and antisocial personality disorders is still pretty bad. And though the study shows TV has antisocial effects on girls as well, I still think boys internalize it differently, leading to devastating and dangerous consequences for girls and women.

This goes back to the central premise of my Jackie the Ripper post. As I discussed in length, most of the violence boys and men watch on TV or play in games is violence against women. TV execs and game developers continue to feature women primarily as victims, dead-bodies or helpless damsels in distress. This counts as long-term negative exposure for boys and men because these same sexist and passive tropes are being shown in children’s programing all the way through to adult entertainment. I have no doubt boys are being socialized to view violence against women as something that is inevitable or natural. Perhaps TV does not subconsciously lead boys to commit violence themselves, but it does normalize it for them. They become desensitized to it, and they accept gender-based violence (like femicide, rape, sexual objectification, domestic abuse, etc.) as typical, unavoidable and not all that shocking or big of a deal. They actually begin to believe that women are weaker, subservient, sexually for the taking and less worthy of respect than men. They might even view some women as deserving of the violence they endure.

Seriously, go and read my post and watch the Jackson Katz video I included.

Women are not immune to the effects either; we also internalize the notion that violence committed against us by men is something we should expect at some point in our lives. But at least as women we understand how it impacts us directly. We know violence hurts us. That it’s unjust. We frequently rally against it. But do boys and men, who are granted privileged positions by virtue of their genitalia, realize this too? Will boys and men be motivated to stand by women’s sides in our quest for justice if they are taught throughout their lives that females are dispensable objects?

…Side note: the same can also be said of the hyper-sexualization of TV and video games. We know it leads girls to objectify themselves. Just as boys may not grow up to become sadistic murderers after watching violent TV, girls may not grow up to become strippers, call girls or porn stars after watching sexually demeaning programs. But studies have proven that kind of imagery definitely deflates their self-esteem, notions of self-worth/value and career aspirations. Meanwhile, boys who are exposed to sexualized imagery walk away thinking women exist solely for their pleasure. But back to the issue of violence…

It’s one thing for adult women and men to watch a serial killer series. One hour per week will not likely socialize us into becoming evil ourselves. And on an singular level, one show isn’t going to do that much damage. That’s especially true for women since we are rarely, if ever, shown in positions of true power anyway. So female viewers are definitely less likely to identify with the usually male heroes or villains in these shows.

But I don’t think that applies to boys, or, frankly, adult men for that matter. No, one single violent series or episode may not make a big difference. But males have been inundated since childhood with violent media that tacitly equates women with weakness, victimhood, normalized violence and inferiority to men. Hello Hollywood, that’s a BIG problem.  That’s why we need to see more portrayals of women as either anti-heroes or villains (or, of course, as the main hero). That’s why I argued for seeing more fictional female serial killers on TV!

Violence is never going to disappear from television or films, but we can at least equalize it. We can start giving women characters they can identify with that aren’t just dead bodies. And as one particularly astute commentator on my post put it, this may even persuade boys and men that violence is no laughing matter:

Screen shot 2013-09-24 at 11.54.31 AM

Here are some more insightful comments from her:


Screen shot 2013-09-24 at 11.49.03 AM

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Screen shot 2013-09-24 at 11.49.37 AMScreen shot 2013-09-24 at 11.49.45 AM

I had to cut out some of the comment thread to save space, but you can read it all at Feministe.

To sum up, right now researchers haven’t been able to prove that violent media has a causal effect on violent crimes committed in real life. That doesn’t mean future studies won’t. Nevertheless, we do know sexist, violent media leads to misogynistic beliefs, negative gender attitudes and self-serving expectations among boys and men and low self-esteem among girls and women.

To me, that is proof we need more Jackie the Rippers on TV.


Main image courtesy of eHow Mom.

If you’re interested, check out Sharon Cullars’ books.

Update 11:25 p.m.

Vulture has a great article about Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz, whose sister was brutally raped and murdered. Here’s the most powerful section:

In May, after receiving an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, he seemed to surprise the graduating class with a commencement address that asked them to “help end the culture of violence against women on television, in music, in homes and public parks and backseats of cars all over America.” He suggested they begin by not including such entertainment in their Netflix queues and gaming downloads. At the very least, he urged that they should “change the channel.”

If even that small gesture may be an unrealistic goal, he feels he has no choice but to ask. His daughters with his first wife are now 13 and 16; he also has a 2-year-old daughter with his second. “What happened to my sister is not extraordinary,” he says; his teenagers have already been groped and verbally harassed at school or on Facebook. Noting that one in four women on campus will be the victim of an unwanted sexual advance, he all but shouts: “One in four? I have three daughters! If I’d have one more, I’d really be fucked.”

As a result, in the last year, he told his agents and manager that he could no longer audition for “material that uses the rape, mutilation, or murder of a woman for the purpose of adding suspense to a plot, to tease or titillate an audience when the narrative gets boring.” Though he’s hardly in a position to snub lucrative jobs, and he fears seeming “super-noble” even discussing it, the result has been eye-opening. Under the new restriction, he has had to reject almost every film and TV script—mostly police procedurals and serial-­killer dramas—he’s been offered.

If only more male actors would follow suit.


  1. Jackie the Ripper: Where Are All the Female Serial Killers on TV? | Fem It Up! - […] UPDATE: This post appeared on Feministe on July 10, 2013.  After you’re finished, read my follow up: The Link…

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