Violent Media: Youth Corruption Machine or Harmless Distraction?

Caleb Vines



            In recent times, the news media has cried out against violent media, painting it as the leading cause for youth violence. Following events such as the Columbine massacre, news sources have vilified violent media, claiming that it is a primary cause of violent behavior in youths. This analysis provides firm research on the subject from the opposing and supporting sources, giving a thorough definition to the term “violent media” and  brings forth evidence that other psychological effects and environmental factors are more significant causes of increased youth aggression than violent media.



            Youth violence is a significant issue in modern society. Every new generation of high school and college students seems to have a new and increasingly violent incident of students being violent to others, often resulting in large numbers of injured or killed children. Whether it be the Columbine High School shooting, the Virginia Tech incident, or any of the dozens of school shootings that have occurred worldwide in the twenty-first century, violence is rapidly becoming more prevalent and more recognizable in youth culture. That being said, shootings are not the only source of violence in the new youth generation. Fighting, gang activity, and other organized violence is quickly increasing in number and severity.

            The most intimidating factor of this massive increase in violent behavior is that nobody really knows why it is happening. Youths are simply becoming more violent. Researchers in child psychology are trying to find the leading causes of violence, but simply cannot—a child or young adult can easily have his or her mind influenced by a number of outside factors. One's peers may make any measurable change in how a child behaves, leading the child to act in a more violent or aggressive manner to fit in. A youth may be influenced by his or her environment, whether it is poor and obtrusive enough to lead the youth to begin making poor lifestyle decisions or positive to the point the youth begins rebelling by lashing out. Witnessing violence first-hand may also have a lasting effect on a child, in some cases going as far as to give the child a permanent personality disorder.

            News authorities constantly fill the airwaves with stories of youths committing heinous, harmful acts against others—whether they are fights, violent sexual crimes, or even murders. These violent events are usually taken at face value, but when people ask why, the news almost always pins the blame on violent forms of media. With violent lyrics in music, video games with violent themes, hyper-violent horror and action movies and more, entertainment media has been under the microscope as a primary factor in causing violent behavior in youths for years. Ever since the Columbine shootings in 1999 and the subsequent blame being placed on the video game DOOM and heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson, the news media delights in finding new violent entertainment to link to youth violence, especially if a massacre is involved.

            From a scientific standpoint, however, defined causes for youth violence simply have not been found. In fact, a study of youth violence held in 2004, focusing around candid conversation with youths between the ages 14 and 22 who had been involved in violent behavior and fights about the causes of youth violence, found “ predominant cause of violence emerged from the discussion” (Cheng, et al. 288). Simply put, evidence pointing out any primary cause of youth violence does not exist. With mental illness, poor lifestyle choices, hostile environments, ineffective parenting, and peer pressure all playing roles, one must consider whether violent media and entertainment are primary causes of youth violence. Even if sufficient evidence existed to prove violent media was a significant factor in causing youth violence, one cannot claim that it causes more youth violence than other psychological issues or environmental factors.

            In order to better understand the place of violent media in comparison to other major factors in causing youth violence, one must first understand how the other factors affect youths. The effect of one's peers on social and psychological development is extremely significant, and in present day youth socialization has a heavy focus on violent behavior. Many youths feel as though they must use violence to “fit in” with their peers and to make friends. A participant in the aforementioned youth violence study, which was spearheaded by two pediatricians with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a pair of pediatricians from the Washington, D.C. area, states, “If you fight somebody and beat them up, it's like everybody wants to be your friend, or everybody knows your name that didn't speak to you before—they speak to you now” (Cheng, et al. 289). Youths commonly cite their peers as a reason to commit violent acts, if not because of their peers' actions against them, then because of their peers' actions against their friends, with studies finding, “...Standing up for friends, jealousy, misunderstandings, disrespect, and gossip,” are all common reasons for youths to commit violent acts against other youths in their peer group (Cheng, et al. 288). These also lead to youths creating a “violence begets violence” attitude, in which they feel that violent behavior against them must be countered with violence of their own, summed up by a child in the study with this statement, “Like your mother used to say, somebody hit you, you better hit 'em back” (Cheng, et al. 289). These desires for vengeance, increase in popularity, and notoriety all foster a violent nature in children that, while it could be influenced somewhat by violent media, exist in a world of its own apart from said media.

            One may, however, make the argument that one's peer group could learn from violent media as a whole. Online video games are quickly becoming the most prevalent social entertainment tool between high school and college students. Services such as Xbox Live and Playstation Network allow users to play video games together with incredible ease; all one needs is a broadband internet connection and, in Xbox Live's case, a monthly subscription, and one can play games with friends or complete strangers. Unfortunately, the most commonly played games on these services are first-person shooters, such as the military simulator Call of Duty or the bloody space marine epic Halo. The services can encourage constructive gameplay with online support for cooperative, non-violent games, such as Rock Band, or less violent games that encourage healthy competition, such as sports games.

            The clear, immediate response to peers encouraging play of violent video games is to introduce youths to video games that are not violent and remove the offending material. However, this strategy does not work; attempting to entirely remove violence simply creates games children do not want to play. Case in point, the cooperative massively multiplayer online game Lego Universe closed all its official online servers after less than a year due to lack of public interest, and the game contained little to no true violence. Violent games, however, continue to enjoy high sales and continue to produce sequels, pushing more and more violent video games into youths' peer groups. It is unarguable that violent video games are not linked to youth peer groups, and as such one simply cannot write off the potential that violent video games may have an effect on children committing violent acts. However, much more severe causes do exist in the current purview of youth violence.

            A youth's environment may be a significant influence on violence. Certain environments may be more conducive to negative peer relations, especially in inner city neighborhoods. Some youths may live in environments in which violence is the norm, which may foster violent activity. The same study found that communities known for housing drug pushers and gangs were especially susceptible to youth violence, especially if multiple gangs exist within nearby neighborhoods (Cheng, et al. 288). Inner city neighborhoods may also lead youths to perform crimes out of boredom, with a child in a case study stating, “When me and my boys are chillin', we don't really have a planned violence, we, like, get bored to do something,” said a youth in a violence discussion group (Cheng, et al. 288). Some youths who are predisposed to violence may be so due to family values that either promote violence or do a poor job of reprimanding violent behavior, leading to children who do not understand the repercussions of their activities. The environment of a violent youth can easily take precedence over a violent video game or movie the youth may play or watch.

            Potentially the most major influence on youth violence, rather than violent media, is witnessing or being a victim of community or domestic violence. Youths in inner city environments typically cite violence within the family or their community as a significant factor which affects their violent behavior directly (Cheng, et al. 288). A study by Maureen Allwood, a criminal justice student, and her colleague Debora Bell found that being exposed to violence “...accounted for 22% and 26% of the variance in violent behavior for females and males, respectively” (990). Allwood and Bell also pointed out a study prior to theirs that found “75% of [the original researchers] fifth- and sixth- grade sample in the District of Columbia reported witnessing community violence” (990). Not only is community and domestic abuse a significant factor in youth violence, but it also is more common than the average person would expect.

            Even more dangerous is the potential for domestic or community violence to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in youths or children. Gayla Margolin and Katrina Vickerman, both associated with the University of South California, point out that “each year, domestic violence occurs in the homes of approximately 30% of children living with two parents” (613). The article also points out that “...13% to 50% of youth exposed to interparental violence qualify for diagnosis of PTSD,” as well as the fact that “...26% of physicaly abused children qualified for PTSD diagnoses” (Margolin and Vickerman 613-614). These statistics become even more chilling when paired with Allwood and Bell's studies relating PTSD and community violence, which found that youths showing symptoms of PTSD were more inclined to commit violent behaviors, and “...found high PTSD symptoms among adolescents incarcerated for primary violent offenses” (Allwood and Bell 990). Youth violence in relation to PTSD has become so severe and was so poorly recognized by the medical community that a new diagnosis, developmental trauma disorder (DTD), which covers the symptoms of PTSD found in children that are witnesses or subjects of domestic abuse (Margolin and Vickerman 616). PTSD is far too significant of a factor to be discounted from the discussion of youth violence.

            Even with all other causal arguments intact, violent media does have a marked effect on youth violence; this is an undeniable fact. Although one may be aware of violent media, however, it is very difficult to decide what media is violent and what media is not. Even dictionaries can barely agree on a definition for the word “violent,” with Collins English Dictionary citing six distinct definitions for the word “violent,” ranging from “marked or caused by great physical force or violence,” to “characterized by an undue use of force; severe; harsh,” and even “caused by or displaying strong or undue mental or emotional force” (“Violent”). When video games see opposition in terms of violence, the medium usually is called out for senseless violence—that is, to say, violence with no redeeming merit. The next logical question becomes “what separates 'senseless violence' and 'harmless violence?'”

            Cartoon and fantasy violence are a very important topic in the discussion of defining violence. Children naturally find themselves drawn to video games. The interactive nature of the medium, as well as the regular featuring of television, cartoon, and movie characters, draws kids in to video gaming at a young age. These games, however, can feature questionable behavior. Modern kids’ games feature increasingly large amounts of cartoon violence. The “Lego” series of games, in specific, see a strange combination of violence and cartoon antics. Drawing upon popular movie series such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, the games take scenes from said movies and place the player in the plastic shoes of Lego figures representing the characters from the movies. While the games are all rated “Everyone Ten and Up,” the movies range from PG to PG-13, some of which have very violent images, such as the main villain's face being melted off by exposure to the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. These scenes are represented in a much sillier fashion, as the Lego motif takes away from the violent imagery apparent in the movies, but still are representative of the original films. The obvious response to violence is to remove it, but attempting to entirely remove violence simply creates games children do not want to play, such as Lego Universe mentioned prior.

            The true question of philosophy raised by cartoon violence is whether or not it is true violence. While it does demonstrate the destructive behavior to qualify as violent material, it also does so in a very light-hearted fashion and rarely is used to a distinct enough level to raise alarm. Although the games do exhibit certain levels of aggression, the games counter the emotion with overwhelming levels of cutesy graphics and humorous behavior. Arguably most importantly, the games typically do not use imitable behaviors or actions when using violence as a part of the plot or as a game mechanic—most cartoon violence is comical and over-the-top and usually is impossible to actually reproduce. Generally, in the wide purview of the arguments for and against video game violence, cartoon violence is not considered “violence.”

            Realistic violence sees the majority of argument in the violent video game debate. The increasing prevalence of realistic violence in “Mature” rated video games is partially to blame for this; games like Call of Duty, in which one plays as an infantry soldier in the heat of combat, Halo, which features space Marines bloodily murdering alien species, and Grand Theft Auto, which heavily involves gang wars and street violence, contribute a measurable amount of violence to the modern video gaming scene. These games heavily feature the use of guns, melee weapons, and share a common goal: kill the enemy or die trying. Opponents of violent video games argue that these games have one shared, and very intimidating, aspect—the games all heavily feature easily imitable destructive behaviors. This senseless violence is exactly what should be eradicated in a fight against modern violence in video games.

            However, one cannot simply avoid the other side of the proverbial coin; some video games use violence as a very important storytelling tool or to evoke emotional response. One of the earliest examples comes with Final Fantasy VII, in which the villain permanently kills a strong supporting character approximately half-way through the game. In a touching scene, the main character holds the supporting character in his arms after being run through by the villain's sword. This event, while it does take place in a non-playable cinematic sequence, uses violence as a significant plot event, removing a major playable character and giving the player new drive to defeat the evil final boss. Other games use violence to send a message on society as a whole. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does so with its now-infamous mission that requires the player to assist in (or be an observer to) a massacre in a major Russian airport. The mission was designed to show the player exactly how far a terrorist force would go to further its agenda, and even sickened some players by showing them how abhorrent attacks on innocent lives truly are.

            Tactful uses of violence in video games such as the aforementioned are appearing more and more in modern video games. One must consider them when thinking about defining violence in terms of the medium; do tactful, cinematic, and emotionally-appealing uses of violence in video games cause youths to become violent? This question draws the most controversy when attempting to define “violence” in video games. Using violence as a means of providing story, morals, or further appreciation of a human life are exactly what the medium needs to do as a counter to mindless killing in games like Grand Theft Auto, and should be rewarded rather than lumped into the extreme violence category.  As such, one must conclude that violence in video games should be defined as aggressive, forceful, or hurtful in-game behaviors that provide no merit besides being aggressive, forceful, or hurtful, as there truly is no other way to describe it than to use the Supreme Court's infamous “You'll know it when you see it” ruling.

Finally, one must realize there is definitive research showing that video games are not linked to increases in youth aggression. A study by Christopher A. Ferguson, a member of the Texas A&M Applied Sciences department, claims “…the empirical link between violent gameplay and serious acts of aggression or violent behaviour appears to be slim at best,” and later states that in an FBI study which observed the number of mass murderers that followed different violent media sources, “For video games, the figure was even lower—only 12%” (“The School” 27-29). In another experiment, Ferguson found, “results of the current meta-analysis did not support a relationship between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior.,” and concluded that, while students may show symptoms of potential aggression increases, there was no definitive proof (“The Good” 314). Even studies which found some link between aggression and video games or other violent media agree that ones with more realistic violence lead to higher levels of aggression, as demonstrated through video games in Barlett and Rodeheffer’s study on violence in video games (214). Furthermore, studies against violent media note that hands-on violent media, while not a significant long-term cause of violence, causes more aggression than passive media (Polman, de Castro, and van Aken  261).

            Violent media affecting youth is a significant issue in modern society; this is undeniable. One simply must decide if it’s as significant as it is made out to be. The evidence presented clearly shows that violent media simply is not the culprit of increasing levels of youth violence. Other significant factors thoroughly take precedence, especially the more severe such as domestic violence or PTSD. The shaky definition of violence doesn’t help, making it difficult to really know what violence affects youths most. Even if people did have a thorough understanding, though, not all the evidence agrees; much evidence shows violent media does not cause aggression in youths, but a large, vocal minority disagrees with case studies of their own. It is impossible to ignore the evidence, and as such one must conclude that violent media is not a significant enough cause of violence in youths to be as concerned as the news media would like—it has been and will always be the subject of nothing but wild correlation.

Works Cited

Allwood, Maureen A., and Debora J. Bell. "A Preliminary Examination Of Emotional And Cognitive Mediators In The Relations Between Violence Exposure And Violent Behaviors In Youth." Journal Of Community Psychology 36.8 (2008): 989-1007. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.\

Barlett, Christopher P., and Christopher Rodeheffer. "Effects Of Realism On Extended Violent And Nonviolent Video Game Play On Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, And Physiological Arousal." Aggressive Behavior 35.3 (2009): 213-224. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Ferguson, Christopher. "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: A Meta-Analytic Review Of Positive And Negative Effects Of Violent Video Games." Psychiatric Quarterly 78.4 (2007): 309-316. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

 Ferguson, Christopher J. "The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship Or Moral Panic?." Journal Of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling 5.1/2 (2008): 25-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

 Margolin, Gayla, and Katrina A. Vickerman. "Posttraumatic Stress In Children And Adolescents Exposed To Family Violence: I. Overview And Issues." Professional Psychology, Research & Practice 38.6 (2007): 613-619. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Polman, Hanneke, Bram Orobio de Castro, and Marcel A.G. van Aken. "Experimental Study Of The Differential Effects Of Playing Versus Watching Violent Video Games On Children's Aggressive Behavior." Aggressive Behavior 34.3 (2008): 256-264. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 May 2012.

T. L. Cheng, et al. "Urban Youths' Perspectives On Violence And The Necessity Of Fighting." Injury Prevention 10.5 (2004): 287-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

"Violence." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 06 Mar. 2012. Web.