The potential relationship between media violence and actual aggression comes to the forefront of public discussion, but unfortunately this discussion rarely takes into account the science related to the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior. In particular, there is a widespread assumption that media violence directly causes aggression and aggressive behavior, and this assumption has become so common that even secondary scholarly discussions of the evidence have taken to relying on it despite the fact that there is no evidence for a causal relationship between the consumption of media violence and aggressive behavior. While there is evidence suggesting a link between the two, correlation does not equal causation, and examining this evidence in detail will help make the case that there is no direct cause and effect relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior while simultaneously demonstrating the fallacy inherent in the counter arguments that have been proposed.
It will actually be useful to consider the counter arguments to this study's thesis before making the case that there is no causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior, because these counter arguments tend to represent the consensus public view despite their lack of convincing evidence. To begin, one must acknowledge that there is substantial, verifiable data indicating a link between media violence and aggressive behavior (Boxer et. al. 417). This fact is not in doubt, and anyone seriously interested in this discussion is not attempting to claim otherwise. While there have been notable attempts to argue that there is no connection between media violence and aggressive behavior or even that media has no affect on behavior at all, such as in Jonathan Freedman's book Media Violence and Its Effects on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, to suggest that there is no connection between the media and behavior "flies in the face of decades of research on persuasion, imitation, and child development" (Freedman 204; Cantor 468). However, acknowledging an interplay between media consumption and behavior is definitely not the same thing as agreeing that media itself can cause certain behaviors, so recognizing the link between media violence and aggressive behavior says nothing about the nature of that link.
The real question, then, is whether one can go so far as to say that this link is causal, meaning that there is evidence to suggest not merely a correlation between the consumption of media violence and aggressive behavior, but that media violence actually causes aggressive behavior. Furthermore, because this issue cuts to the heart of social and public policy, the evidence in favor of a causal link must be overwhelming, because only then would it be sufficient to justify certain public policy decisions (something that proponents of a causal link almost inevitably recommend) (Muscari 585; "Special Commission on Media Violence Confirms Aggression Link"). To understand the lengths that proponents of these policy changes will go to make their case, one need only point out the fact that, for example, an article in the peer-reviewed publication Pediatric Nursing makes the erroneous claim that "more than 3,500 studies, including laboratory experiments, naturalistic studies, correlational studies, and longitudinal studies, discuss the impact of media violence on children" (Muscari 585). In reality, "recent meta-analyses have placed the number between 200 and 300," and the fact that such an egregiously false statement was included in a peer-reviewed article indicates the degree to which this faulty assumption regarding the link between media violence and aggression has permeated the culture (Cantor 468).
As mentioned above, there is clear evidence indicating a link between media violence and aggressive behavior, because multiple studies have demonstrated that individuals who view higher amounts of media violence have a higher likelihood of engaging in aggressive behavior (Boxer et. al. 417; "Special Commission on Media Violence Confirms Aggression Link"). These studies have shown that preference for media violence can be "a risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior," meaning that one can look at an individual's preference for media violence and can guess with some accuracy that individual's likelihood for engaging in aggressive behavior (Boxer et. al. 417). In the words of one study, knowing an individual's preferences for violent media provided "modest predictive effects, with violent media preferences accounting for small but significant proportions in variance of outcomes" (Boxer et. al. 424). However, while this indicates that there is a connection between violent media preferences and aggressive behavior, it does not indicate the direction of this relationship, because one could easily reverse the prediction and state that knowing someone's tendency to behave aggressively could allow one to further predict that individual;s preference for violent media.
However, this nuance is frequently lost on the news media and even some researchers. For example, in a news story covering the study mentioned above which found "modest predictive effects," the story leads with the statement that "you are what you watch, when it comes to violence in the media and its influence on violent behavior in young people" ("Rutgers researcher's study cites media violence as 'critical risk factor' for aggression" 149). Similarly, when a special commission organized by Iowa State University found that media violence can "act as triggers for activating aggressive thoughts and feelings already stored in memory [emphasis added]," a news article covering these findings portrayed them as indicating that media violence causes real violence, instead of simply demonstrating how media violence can appeal to someone who already has aggressive thoughts ("Special Commission on Media Violence").
Part of the problem lies with researchers, who cite violent media preferences as a "risk factor" for aggressive behavior, even though the term "risk factor" is not very descriptive and serves to cloud the issue. What is really meant by this phrase is that preference for violent media can predict aggressive behavior, but because the issue is couched in terms of the risk of aggressive behavior, it comes out looking as if violent media preferences actually increase the risk of aggressive behavior instead of merely predicting or indicating its likelihood. Once again, to understand the fallacy at work in assuming a link is the same as a causal link, one may reverse the formulation and state that aggressive behavior is a "critical risk factor" for violent media preferences. When put this way, it becomes easy to see the problem with calling predictive capability a "risk factor," because it inserts an implicit causation where the evidence merely indicates a correlation. Furthermore, by imagining the possibility of looking at the issue from the other direction, it becomes clear that the focus on the effects of media violence is distinctly one-sided, because it might be more helpful to focus on how engaging in aggressive behavior influences someone's subsequent interests.
There are a number of other flaws that tend to permeate the arguments in favor of a causal link between media violence and aggressive behavior, but they are too many to go over in detail here. However, it is possible to suggest one major problem, if only to get a better idea as to how unstable the position is. For example, studies of media violence tend to discuss violent acts in media in general categories, and often fail to distinguish between different kinds of violence, as well as who or what is perpetrating the violence and who is a victim (Muscari 585). For example, one study suggests that "by the time they reach age 18, [children] will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence," but it does not go into any detail in regards to the specifics of these violent acts, something that is very important when one is attempting to uncover the relationship between media and behavior (Muscari 585). For example, popular media represents violence in a number of different lights, and to simply discuss the sheer number of violent acts and suppose that these are regarded equally by the audience is to lack a critically rigorous methodology. While there are of course instances where the media glorifies violence and encourages its use, there are also instances in which violence is condemned. Furthermore, depending on the text in question, violence can be considered acceptable in some circumstances and unacceptable in others, but what is considered "aggressive" behavior is usually relegated to violence deployed in a socially unacceptable situation.
With all of this in mind, it should become clear that the only reasonable position to hold in light of the available evidence is that there is not a direct causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior. This is not to suggest that further research might not eventually reveal such a causal relationship, but rather to acknowledge that the available evidence is not sufficient to justify a belief in such a relationship. While there is evidence indicating a relationship between the two, it is irresponsible and disingenuous to make claims beyond what this evidence demonstrates, particularly when these claims are almost always wrapped up in policy proposals. In this light, it should further be clear that one need not provide further evidence suggesting that there is no link,…