Will girls imitate the new, kickass heroines in the Japanese animé Cardcaptors? Will the impressionable 12-year-olds exposed to trailers for MGM’s Disturbing Behavior forever after associate good teen behavior with lobotomies? Did Nine Inch Nails and the video game Doom inspire the Trenchcoat Mafia’s bloodbath at Columbine? Thousands of studies have been done to try to answer variants of the question: Does media violence lead to real-life violence, making children more antisocial and aggressive?
Like most complex issues, discussions about the impact of media violence on children suffer from that commonest of media problems: fudge. Almost any simple statement on the subject obscures the complexity of the facts, half-facts and “results suggest” findings of the past forty years. The right-wing Parents Television Council, for example, announces that the per-hour rate in the United States of sexual and violent material and coarse language combined almost tripled from 1989 to 1999. But while PTC president Brent Bozell castigates the media for lowering standards of acceptable speech and behavior, he doesn’t mention that in the final years of this avalanche of dreck the juvenile crime rate dropped more than 30 percent. Or, again, in August 1999 the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Orrin Hatch, reported confidently that “Television alone is responsible for 10 percent of youth violence.” Given the overall juvenile crime count in 1997, the report implied, some 250 murders and 12,100 other violent crimes would not have been committed if it weren’t for the likes of Batman Beyond.
But this, of course, is deeply misleading. One of the reasons so many media violence studies have been done is that the phenomenon may be too complex to study conclusively. There’s no way, after all, to lock two clones in a black box, feed them different TV, movie and video-game diets and open the box years later to determine that, yes, it was definitely those Bruce Lee epics that turned clone A into Jesse Ventura, while clone B’s exposure to the movie Babe produced a Pee Wee Herman.
It has been hard, in other words, for media violence studies to shake the ambiguity of correlations. Several studies have shown that violent boys tend to watch more TV, choose more violent content and get more enjoyment out of it. But the studies admittedly can’t show exactly how or why that happens. Do temperamentally violent kids seek out shows that express feelings they already have, or are they in it for the adrenaline boost? Do the sort of parents who let kids pig out on gore tend to do more than their share of other hurtful things that encourage violent behavior? To what extent is violent media producing little Johnny’s aggression–or inspiring it, making it appear glamorous, righteous, acceptably gratuitous, fun or “normal”–and to what extent is it merely satisfying little Johnny’s greater-than-average longings for the mayhem, vengeance, superhuman power and sweet revenge that most people, at times, secretly crave?