Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We’re with you, guy on the left. (Photo: Getty Images)

It's time to retire the old argument that violent entertainment causes violent behavior

We’re with you, guy on the left. (Photo: Getty Images)

We’ll give Donald Trump this: At least he hasn’t had the absolute worst response to the student movement for ending gun violence that has emerged in the wake of the murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last week. (See: Dinesh D’Souza and fired GOP lawmaker’s aide Benjamin Kelly.) That’s not to say his response has been good; over the past week, Trump has proven himself as erratic and ill-informed as always, vacillating between reasonable suggestions like enforcing comprehensive background checks and batshit crazy suggestions like arming teachers (which he’s since walked back to “I only want to arm some teachers.”)

Perhaps it’s too much to hope that Trump might acknowledge that guns are the problem. He’s blamed the survivors for not reporting the shooter to authorities (they did), Democrats for not passing gun control measures during the Obama administration (they did, and Trump reversed it), the FBI for investigating him and not the shooter (uh huh, sure buddy), and mentally ill people for being mentally ill (rich, considering it was Ronald Reagan who instituted policies that put thousands of mentally ill people on the streets), but not the guns themselves. Nor the NRA, who are Great People, and Great American Patriots! (Capitalization his.)

Given all of this, is it a surprise that Trump, in a meeting with lawmakers earlier today, pulled out that old saw of blaming violent video games and movies for the epidemic of school shootings in the U.S.? Here’s what Trump told Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, as quoted in Deadline:

I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies. You see these movies, and they’re so violent a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved, and maybe we need to put a rating system for that. The fact is that you are having movies come out, that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that’s another thing we need to discuss.

Trump, again, as loath as we are to say it, has a point about the hypocrisy of rating sexual content in films more harshly than violence. But we’re not going to give him credit for that, because he also seems to be suggesting that there should be a ratings system for movies and video games, and, well—there already is one, and it’s existed for decades.

Besides, the “violent media makes kids violent” argument is shaky at best, based on scientific studies, court cases, and simple common sense. Fears of violent entertainment stirring the unwashed masses to violence against their betters date back centuries—you can hear all about that in the latest episode of Hardcore History, if you’re so inclined—and scientists have been studying the effects of violent media on children since the 1950s. Those studies have been inconclusive: Some have shown that watching violent TV or playing violent games can temporarily increase aggressive behavior, while others have shown that just about any form of televised entertainment, even Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, can get kids’ blood stirring. (The Supreme Court cited this phenomenon in its decision striking down California’s attempt to regulate video game violence in 2011, effectively settling the question as far as the First Amendment goes.) And you don’t have to be a trained academic to see the implications of statistics that show the number of violent youthful offenders in the U.S. falling by more than half between 1994 and 2010, years that have seen a massive increase in the extremity and realism of violence in games, movies, and on TV.

Even the American Psychological Association, whose official position is that there is a link between violent video games and aggression, has been re-evaluating that stance. In a memo last June, the APA’s Media Psychology division wrote that studies of mass shootings and shooters have produced no evidence that the temporary adrenaline rush one might get from playing a violent game will translate into real-world violence. “The less publicized, more scientifically sound view [is] that little evidence exists that playing violent video games produces violent criminal behavior,” the memo says. Even the link between video games and “relatively minor acts of aggression” is debatable, thanks to new studies like this one from the University of York published just last month.

In its memo, the APA goes on to recommend that news media and public officials refrain from suggesting that violent media influenced a criminal act, and that they note the difference between minor “aggression” and criminal “violence” when discussing the subject. The organization also points out that there are many factors proven to influence violent behavior, like poverty and mental illness, and that politicians and media “would benefit from remembering that discovering a young male perpetrator of a crime also happened to play violent video games or watch violent movies is not remarkable given the commonness of such media use among young males.” Sick burn, APA.

In other words, if watching violent movies was the one deciding factor capable of making otherwise healthy people act violently, someone would have been gunned down at every screening of John Wick 2 at every multiplex in America—right? And South Korea, a country with half the murder rate of the U.S., consistently produces some of the most realistic—and sadistic—horror movies out there. So while we’re not exactly suggesting a White House screening of I Saw The Devil to drive home our point, we are saying that other countries have violent entertainment, but not an epidemic of school shootings. So if the Supreme Court ruling that violent video games haven’t been proven to cause violent behavior isn’t enough to sway you, and neither is the resounding lack of evidence coming from the scientific community, then how about a little common sense?