In late November GamePolitics and other media outlets reported on a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health which indicated a strong linkage between violent media and aggressive behavior in children.
The study was authored by L. Rowell Huesmann (left) and Brad Bushman, both professors at the University of Michigan.
A comparison of public health threats included in the report generated a fair amount of media attention and was widely misinterpreted (including here, initially). Here is an example, taken from the Reuters report:
Violence depicted on television, in films and video games raises the risk of aggressive behavior in adults and young viewers and poses a serious threat to public health, according to a new study.
After reviewing more than 50 years of research on the impact of violence in the media, L. Rowell Huesmann, of the University of Michigan, and his colleague Brad Bushman concluded that only smoking posed a greater danger.
Only smoking is a greater risk to public health than video games?
The more we thought about that, the less sense it made. So we went right to the source. Study author L. Rowell Huesmann is an Amos N. Tversky Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology as well as the Director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
GP: Your study has been widely reported in mainstream and video game enthusiast sites as saying that violent media is the number two public health threat behind smoking. However, what I read your study to say is that the correlation between media violence and aggression is second only to that between smoking and lung cancer among [select] public health threats [those listed by Huesmann]. Am I correct about this?
LRH: Yes, you are correct. And furthermore, there may be other public health threats that are also greater that I don’t know about. The real point is that the effect size is almost as big as smoking on lung cancer and bigger than a number of other threats that many people consider serious. This means the effect size is big enough that we should all really be concerned about the effects of violent video games on children.
GP: Also – among the threats listed I don’t see [major] things like obesity & diabetes, guns & homicide, drinking & car crashes, etc. Could you address why?
LRH: No reason. I picked ones I thought people would be surprised about. In fact I would guess that the ones you mention would be even larger. Let me know if you figure them out, please.
GP: Finally, what is the broader implication of the increased aggression you have observed? Juvenile crime rates have been generally declining over the last decade or so, have they not? With the amount of violent media out there, wouldn’t you expect an opposite trend?
LRH: No, because there are so many factors that affect juvenile crime rates. For example, one of the biggest factors historically in crime rates is the state of the economy. For example, one of the highest murder rates in the past 120 years was during the Depression in the 1930’s. Another important factor is the demographic composition of the population, e.g. – exactly how many youth are in a particular age range. Another important factor is the number of police and how crimes are reported. So, generally, one can’t use gross population crime rates to infer much of anything at the individual level.
Please be aware that an implication of the body of research I reviewed is that the mass media and video games are very powerful teachers. Video games can teach wonderful things or they can teach bad things. It would be a shame if my review were used to indict all video games. There are many great games that teach kids very valuable things.
GP: Thanks to Dr. Huesmann for taking the time to respond and clear up the confusion.