Research Shows Violent Media Not “Just Entertainment”

Contributed By By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 24 February 2014

Good parenting is the key to ensuring that children have the appropriate guidelines for their media choices, says Dr. Brad J. Bushman, a highly cited communications scholar who challenges the idea that violent media has only a trivial effect on aggression.

Article Highlights

  • Research shows that violent video games often lead to other aggressive behaviors, such as threats of violence, pushing and shoving, verbal aggression, and violent thoughts.

“Let’s protect our children—let’s make sure they don’t consume age-inappropriate media.” —Dr. Brad J. Bushman, professor of communication science

PROVO, UTAH

Parents have an obligation to help their children navigate appropriate media for their age.

“We don’t let our kids smoke cigarettes, drink beer, or play with guns,” said Brad J. Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and a professor of communication science at the VU University in Amsterdam, Netherlands. “Let’s protect our children—let’s make sure they don’t consume age-inappropriate media.”

Although many say there is no concrete evidence proving violent video games make people more aggressive, Dr. Bushman said a lot of research suggests otherwise.

“All of these effects are quite large,” said Dr. Bushman, a Latter-day Saint whose research has been featured widely. “They are statistically significant, and the research clearly shows that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, it increases angry feelings, it increases physiological arousal such as heart rate and blood pressure, it increases aggressive behavior.”

Addressing the topic “Is violent media ‘just entertainment?’” Dr. Bushman delivered the 10th annual lecture for the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences. Attendees filled the room at the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall in the alumni building at Brigham Young University on February 13.

Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, gives the 10th annual lecture for the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences, titled “Is Violent Media ‘Just Entertainment?’” on February 13, 2014, at BYU.

Dr. Bushman has been studying the topic of violence in media for a quarter of a century and has more than 150 publications in peer-reviewed journals. His focus emphasizes the causes, consequences, and solutions to the problem of human aggression and violence. Google’s scholar list identifies him as the second-most cited communications scholar in America. One of his main focuses has been challenging the idea that violent media has only a trivial effect on aggression.

“We recently did a comprehensive review of every study ever conducted on violent video games and found 381 studies involving over 130,000 participants,” he said. “That’s just video games—I’m not talking about television programs or movies—hundreds of studies have been conducted on the topic.”

After looking at the results, Dr. Bushman said that, across the board, individuals who play violent video games have higher levels of aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, arousal, and aggression. They also have lower levels of helping and empathy.

Focusing on those six factors—aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, arousal, aggression, helping, and empathy—he cited examples of different studies and their results. The studies included men and women of all ages from around the world. Even with taking into account a margin of error, none of the results come even close to a correlation of zero—meaning no effect—in looking at the overall impact, he said.

Although the extreme violent behaviors—such as assault and even murder—are very rare and very difficult to predict, violent video games often lead to other aggressive behaviors, such as threats of violence, pushing and shoving, verbal aggression, and violent thoughts.

For most of the studies, researchers randomly assigned some participants to play violent video games and other participants play nonviolent video games for a duration of time—usually 20 minutes. Different tests and questions conducted after the study show the effects of the violent video games.

Individuals who play violent video games have higher levels of aggressive thoughts and lower levels of empathy.

To measure their aggressive thoughts, the researchers gave a hypothetical situation of a car hitting another car—no one injured—and asked what the response of the person who had been hit would be. Responses of violent measures were more prevalent among those who had been playing violent video games.

“Violent video games influence aggressive thoughts,” he said.

With screens getting bigger and bigger and technology allowing for 3-D experiences, individuals are able to have a large experience when playing video games, even within their own homes. For one study, researchers used equipment to measure heart rate and breathing patterns to analyze the physical effects of violent video games. Cardiac incoherence—irregular heart rate and breathing patterns—were more prevalent among individuals who played the violent video games.

Another study allowed the “winner” of a game to blast a loud noise through headphones at a competitor for the duration and decimal that they chose. Those who had been playing violent video games often chose a louder and longer blast, even though the “winner” erroneously thought the blast could cause permanent damage to his or her opponent.

“The more people play, the more aggressive they become,” he said. “They become numb to the pain and suffering of others.”

Another study included a fake fight outside the room where the test subjects were located. Those who had been playing violent video games were much slower to respond to someone who, for all appearances, seemed to have been attacked and left hurt.

“What happens in the brain changes how you act,” Dr. Bushman said.

The Assembly Hall of the Hinckley Alumni Center on BYU’s campus is filled February 13 during the annual Lecture for the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences. The lecture was by Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. Photo by Marcos Escalona, BYU.

Although there are many studies showing the negative effects of violence in video games, many people choose not to listen. Many like the games and don’t want to believe their effects, while others say they aren’t “killing anyone in real life” and so the games must not have an effect on them.

“Even the surgeon general warned of violence in the media in 1972,” Dr. Bushman said. Pointing out that the warning was about violent TV programs and films, he posed the question, “What about video games?”

Recognizing that all video games do not have a negative effect, he said that good parenting is the key to make sure that children have the appropriate guidelines for their media choices. In his home they have passwords for their computers and TV, which are not allowed in children’s rooms, and their personal electronic devices are used in rooms with open doors and are turned in at night.

Although these rules aren’t always popular—even in his own home—they are what are going to make the difference, he declared.

“Being a professor is easier than being a good parent,” he said, adding that “violent media is something we can do something about.”

Each year a national researcher is chosen to speak at the annual lecture honoring Sister Hinckley. For this lecture, all five of President Gordon B. Hinckley and Marjorie Pay Hinckley’s children attended the lecture, along with other family members.