Report: More Research Needed on Link Between Media and Violence

National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine said existing research is inadequate

Declaring that detailed scientific research on the impact of media violence on gun violence is sorely lacking, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine on Wednesday recommended that scientists prioritize significant new research on the subject.

In a 69-page report into “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-related Violence” produced at the request of the Centers for Disease Control after the Sandy Creek school shootings in December, the Institute of Medicine offered one piece of good news for the movie and TV industry: The report said that while violence in videogames and the media may be frequently blamed for increasing gun violence, a scientific link “has not been established” by research.

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One possible reason: the relatively few studies about media violence have examined possible impacts on aggressive behavior — not directly on gun violence.

The report raised the prospect that Hollywood could face years of further debate and perhaps legislation or significant pressure if connections between movies and TV shows and gun violence are eventually established..

“Not enough is known about the connection,” John A. Rich, a member of the IOM and professor and chair of the Department of Health Management and Policy at Drexel University’s School of Public Health told TheWrap. “There have been studies that show it can cause an increase in aggression but there is not enough study of firearm violence that looks at whether exposure can result in real life firearm violence.”

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The report said that while behavioral research on media violence has been conducted for years, many of the studies were small laboratory or field experiments that went little beyond questions about whether media violence increased aggressive tendencies.

“Although research on the effects of media violence has been carried out for more than 50 years, little of this research has focused on real-life firearm violence in particular. As a result a direct relationship between media violence and real-life firearm violence has not been established,” said the report.

It noted that some other longer term studies offered evidence to demonstrate exposure to violent media in childhood can lead to real life aggression or violence later or at least heightened rates of aggression, those studies have been disputed by critics.

The report offered no specifics on how new research should be conducted, whether it should involve movies, TV shows or videogames or even violent music.

Instead the report repeatedly made clear that past studies didn’t go far enough to make any reasonable assessment about impacts.

“The vast majority of research on the effects of media violence is based on short-term laboratory or field experiments. These studies examine short-term effects of media exposure on physical and verbal aggressive behavior, thoughts and emotions; hostility; fearful behaviors; physiological arousal; the tendency to mimic behaviors, empathy and pro-social behaviors,” the report said.

Even when current studies offer evidence that exposure to media — including exposure to violent TV shows and movies — can have effects, the report says it is not clear how the increased aggressiveness translates.

“Effects vary as a complex function of interactions among media content, viewer characteristics and social contexts and are open to a number of interpretations,” said the report.

The report also cautioned that impacts of media violence are far more complicated that simply studying whether playing a videogame or watching a violent movie impacts behavior.

Among the issues it recommended studying is whether seeing violent events can lead to copycat incidents and whether a heavy diet of watching violent news programming impacts people differently than watching violent movies or videogames.

The report also urged research into ways juveniles illegally acquire firearms, research better outlining the risks and costs of having a firearm in a home and how gun storage methods impact that risk, and research into the effectiveness of public steps designed to prevent violent individuals from buying guns.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a long time critic of media violence, praised the research proposal as a necessity at a time when legislation is not an option and the nation is at a crossroads. 

“The federal government has always taken a lead role in addressing the emerging issues that threaten public health such as distracted and impaired driving and strict safety standards for children’s products,” he said in a statement. "The crossroads we are facing with violent content is no different than these other challenges and just as serious.

“But legislation is not an option right now because the courts have ruled that existing and outdated research does not support what parents, pediatricians, and psychologists have all told me – violent video games and violent programming can have a negative effect on children.

“The research agenda proposed by the IOM would improve our understanding of this content and how it is linked to behavior," it continued. "This will inform our work to develop policy that protect our children."