In the aftermath of every major episode of violence, we get the inevitable explanations trotted out anew. Perhaps the dumbest and least supported claim is that violent video games and movies cause people to be more violent and provoke such spasms of murder and mayhem. Nope.
As a video game violence researcher and someone who has done scholarship on mass homicides, let me state very emphatically: There is no good evidence that video games or other media contributes, even in a small way, to mass homicides or any other violence among youth. Our research lab recently published new prospective results with teens in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence indicating that exposure to video game violence neither increased aggressive behaviors, nor decreased prosocial behaviors. Whitney Gunter and Kevin Daly recently published a large study of children in Computers in Human Behavior which found video game violence effects to be inconsequential with other factors controlled. And as for the notion of that violent media “desensitizes” users, recent results published by my student Raul Ramos found that exposure to violence on screen had no influence on viewer empathy for victims of real violence. (A study published by Holly Bowen and Julia Spaniol in Applied Cognitive Psychology similarly found no evidence for a desensitization effect for video games.) Finally, a review of the literature by the Swedish government in 2012 has joined the U.S. Supreme Court and the Australian government in concluding that video game research is inconsistent at best and riddled with methodological flaws.
In fact, during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows. And while it’s natural, in such an emotional time, for people to search desperately for answers, that often results in misinformation. In 2007, after the Virginia Tech Massacre, pundits such as Dr. Phil immediately blamed video games. Only later did the official investigation reveal that the perpetrator was not a violent game player after all. In the Sandy Hook case, after the shooter was misidentified as Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan, the Facebook page of the video game Mass Effect (which Ryan “liked” on his own Facebook page) was attacked by angry hordes.
The fact that society is actually becoming less violent by nearly every measure is rarely discussed. But the fact is that violent crime has been going down steadily for 20 years, though it’s still much higher in America than in nearly any other Western nation. But it’s crisis time, a time when we exploit tragedy to find simple solutions. As Mencken wrote in the Divine Afflatus, one of my favorite essays of all time, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”