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After any calamity involving youth and guns the inevitably facile debate over media ensues. Did the angst-filled teen listen to Marilyn Manson? Play violent games? Watch violent movies and television shows? Likely the youth did, although one would be hard pressed to find a teenager who doesn't. In reality the purported link between exposure to violent media and violent action is fallacious - but it does have a certain appeal.
The proposition starts with the classic nature/nurture debate. Are children born angels and then tainted by society as Rousseau and other romantics believed, or are they innately dreadful and would be so no matter what? There is a plethora of social science research on these questions but the basic answer is that children are born malleable, but not infinitely so.
The most famous study indicating a link between violent images and violent actions was Albert Bandura's 1961 "Bobo the Clown" study. Children exposed to adults being violent toward a "Bobo" doll exhibited more violence toward the doll than children who were exposed to adults tinkering with a tool set. The study was intended to support Bandura's behaviorist "social learning theory," which posits that children learn through a reward/punishment mechanism and observations of adult behavior.
However, the study doesn't actually prove that violent stimuli make children more violent. To start, the children in the experiment were all under the age of six; until the age of eight most children have trouble discerning reality from fantasy and may have mistaken the adults behavior as "instructions," a mistake that no school shooter could have made. But there are more fundamental problems with the assertion that "violent cultures produce violent citizens" or that "violence is a learned behavior."
For one, most American movies and television are exported worldwide, so our "violent media" is consumed by youngsters across the globe. Further, Dr. Buss of the University of Texas has shown that "91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had at least one vivid fantasy - often intense and astonishingly detailed - of committing murder." Violence is universal in the human experience as are violent images, stories, and rituals. From cave drawings to creation narratives to rites of passage, violence is an indispensable part of all cultures. There was no noticeable spike in crime when violent television was introduced; the most deadly school massacre took place in 1927, and homicide rates during the 1920s and 1930s were much higher than today's rate.
The claim the media increase violence has also been thoroughly debunked by academic literature. Psychologist Jonathan Freeman of the University of Toronto compiled all the studies on media violence and violent behavior he could find and concluded that most could find no connection and those that did found only a tenuous connection. His finding: exposure to media violence has negligible if any effect on violent behavior in the real world.
Video games, because of their interactivity are most-oft cited for regulation. Yet, a recent ten-country survey by the Washington Post found a reverse correlation between video games spending and violence. Finally, psychologists have raised the question of reverse causation problems: could it be that violent people prefer violent video games, movies and music?
So why is "media" the debate we're having? Gun control (universal background checks, assault weapon bans, high capacity magazine bans, registration) has been wildly successful in every country that has adopted it; blaming the media is absurd and can't create any real policy proscriptions.
The reason the NRA and other gun rights activists point to media is diversion; they want to have that debate, even though it's absurd and facile - it's supposed to be. We can't let them divert attention from the fact that the United States has thousands upon thousands more people killed by guns than every other industrialized country (and they consume the same violent media) because if we do; they win, and another shooting is around the corner.
Sean McElwee lives in Gales Ferry and studied at The King's College, Manhattan. He is a columnist at The Lewis Review, a general interest magazine published at King's College.