After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, pundits such as TV’s Dr. Phil and politicians like Mitt Romney stated emphatically that video games were one cause of the tragedy. Later, in the official investigation, it emerged that the shooter did not play violent games. This rather embarrassing lesson should serve as a warning about rushing to judgment and the need to remain cautious in making causal attributions in the wake of national tragedies. In the case of Virginia Tech, the scientific community generally remained responsible in not rushing to claim links between video games and the shooting.
Not so after the awful Sandy Hook event this past December. Granted, the murder of so many innocents is a grueling national horror like few others, and such events naturally cause people to act emotionally. But even though we know little yet about Adam Lanza’s media use, and despite an absence of research linking video-game violence to societal violence or mass shootings, a number of scholars have drawn direct links between video games and the Sandy Hook event specifically.
One prominent scholar, Craig Anderson, at Iowa State University, told a reporter that video games probably contributed to the Sandy Hook shooting. Another scholar, Kirstie Farrar, at the University of Connecticut, claimed that “there’s no debate in the academic community” about the positive correlation between video games and aggression, in a news article in which, ironically, I and other scholars debated her position. She was also quoted as saying that video games may be contributing to the increase in mass shootings in recent years, despite no evidence for that claim and the fact shootings have been holding steady, not increasing, according to that criminologist James Alan Fox.
In the past, scholars have been careful to note that research on aggression—like having college students fill in the missing letters of word (such that filling in a word as “explode” as opposed to “explore” would be considered more aggressive)—could not easily be generalized to societal violence. But among many scholars, such caution has been dropped in the wake of Sandy Hook.
To be sure, some scholars continue to be voices of reason. Frank Farley, former American Psychological Association president, reminds us in a piece in Psychology Today that social science has little to offer on questions of societal violence. And the APA itself has generally been cautious thus far in its approach to Sandy Hook. But some scholars risk damaging not only their own credibility but that of the scientific field by making hyperbolic and sometimes blatantly misleading statements the data can’t support.
First, a quick review of the statistics. There exists a pool of several hundred studies on media violence. These studies have always been inconsistent, despite some unfortunate claims by some scholars to the contrary. Recent reviews of this research, ranging from the 2001 Department of Health and Human Services report on youth violence through recent reviews of video-game research by the U.S. Supreme Court and the governments of Australia and Sweden, have all concluded that the research is inconsistent and weakened by methodological flaws.
It’s true the American Academy of Pediatrics has claimed that media violence is a cause of societal violence, but its policy statements have been found to be riddled with errors, like inflating something as simple as the number of studies by a factor of 10 and repeating discredited scientific urban legends such as that the effects of media violence are similar to secondhand smoking on lung cancer (something that should never have survived the “sniff test”).
Few studies actually examine violent behavior as outcomes, and those that do are least likely to find evidence for negative effects. In my own research, I find no evidence that video games or television contribute to youth violence, dating violence, bullying, or adult arrests. Further, the societal-violence data don’t support the effects hypothesis. Youth violence has declined to 40-year lows during the video-game epoch, and countries that consume as much violent media as we do, such as Canada, the Netherlands, and South Korea, have much less violent crime, even if you factor out gun violence. Some scholars try to claim that societal data are irrelevant, but when they link media use to national tragedies they themselves open the door to look at the societal data.
Lastly, violent-media consumption is not a commonality among mass-homicide perpetrators. We focus, irrationally, on it in cases where the perpetrator is a young male like Adam Lanza, since almost all young males consume violent media. But when the perpetrator is an older male, such as 62-year-old William Spengler, who killed two volunteer firefighters the week after Sandy Hook, or the rare woman, such as Amy Bishop, the 44-year-old biology professor who killed three at her university in 2010, video games simply aren’t mentioned. This kind of confirmation bias allows us to think video games are a common thread when they are not.
I do understand that scholars are sincerely reacting to an emotional event. But I call upon them to be much more careful, cautious, and responsible in their public statements. Claiming there is consistent research linking video games with aggression and certainly with mass shootings cannot be supported by the available data. Claiming otherwise misinforms the public and contributes to an atmosphere of moral panic that risks distracting the national conversation away from important discussions on mental health and gun control.
Christopher J. Ferguson is an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University.