Parents, Relax: Movie Violence Up, Real Violence Down

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A new study in the journal Pediatrics that’s getting a lot of mileage in the media laments a disturbing trend of violence in movies. According to a survey conducted by Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University, and his colleagues, violence in movies has doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985 when that ratings designation was first implemented. The authors warn of a direct link between fictional violence and real violent behavior. “We know that movies teach children how adults behave, and they make gun use appear exciting and attractive,” said Dan Romer, a co-author and the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Pennsylvania.

Which sounds reasonable except that it flies in the face of real data. Both youth violence overall and gun violence specifically have declined precipitously during recent decades as movie violence rose. This is probably due to a whole range of factors, but if we were to isolate out the impact of entertainment, some have even suggested that violent movies may actually reduce crime by giving aggressive people something to do other than, well, shoot each other.

The problem may be that social science, especially when it concerns children, sometimes has a hard time keeping cultural agendas out of what are supposed to be scientific papers. In my opinion, this article should never have survived peer review at least without acknowledging the actual data on violent crime. The publisher of the journal, the American Academy of Pediatrics, has gotten in trouble before with scary-sounding warnings, for example their admonition about “Facebook depression,” which turned out to be based on a misrepresentation of several research studies. I’d go further and argue that publishing policy statements are a conflict of interest for an organization that is also supposed to be neutral, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recently, more than 230 independent scholars wrote an open letter to academic journal publishers asking them to refrain from releasing policy statements linking media violence to societal aggression.

Some have argued that our ratings system needs to be changed so that the MPAA is as hard on violence as it is on sex, allowing violent themes only in R-rated movies. But I believe that the ratings system reflects real changes in what society — including most parents — considers appropriate. Certainly, it’s hard to argue that parents are unaware of the content of PG-13 movies. As a media-violence researcher myself, I unapologetically take my 10-year-old son to PG-13 movies and have for years, knowing full well what’s in them. At the theater I see mainly families, not hordes of unsupervised children. Moreover, there’s a vast gulf between the cartoonish violence of PG-13 movies and real-life violence. Beliefs in the harmfulness of PG-13 movies rest on the notion that the human brain is unable to distinguish between the violence of Thor and violence in real life. Movie violence can sound offensive in the abstract, but I suspect if many parents were asked if they would stop taking their children to see The Avengers or Man of Steel, the answer would be “no.”