Yesterday, Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill calling on the National Academy of Sciences to “study” video game violence on children. Speaking of the recent Brown v. EMA Supreme Court decision, which criticized the existing research as inconsistent and methodologically flawed, Rockefeller stated, “Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians and psychologists know better. These court decisions show we need to do more and explore ways Congress can lay additional groundwork on this issue. This report will be a critical resource in this process.”
The Sandy Hook tragedy has torn our nation’s heart, probably more than any other crime I can remember. But by advertising the desired results before any study has even begun, Senator Rockefeller is in classic moral panic mode.
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.
At this point, we don’t know much about Adam Lanza’s media use history. Given that, as researchers Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner note in their book Grand Theft Childhood, almost all young males play violent video games at least occasionally, it’s playing the odds to say Lanza did too. But that has all the predictive power of saying that he sometimes wore sneakers or ate breakfast. In their 2002 evaluation of school shooters, the U.S. Secret Service found no evidence to suggest that these perpetrators consume more media violence than anyone else.
Why then, when the evidence is so poor, do we always return to media to blame for societal ills? The notion that simply removing video games would make these events go away is as understandably tempting as it is nonsensical. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, the nation uselessly diverted itself into a decade’s worth of video game violence laws that were struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Let us hope that Senator Rockefeller’s efforts do not distract us from the bigger tasks at hand: gun control and improving our mental health system.