Does Media Violence Cause Societal Violence?

Violence is a disturbing and sometimes frightening undercurrent of life in the United States. In any given year, more murders occur in any one of the major cities than in all of the British Isles combined. This fact has not been lost on lawmakers, especially those running for reelection. Violent behavior (and how to curb it) has been a frequent issue in elections. Although the causes of violent crime are complex, some people look for a single cause that will point to a quick fix for the problem. In the 1950s, for example, parents and educators blamed graphically violent comic books for an increase in juvenile crime. In the 1970s, pressure from Congress caused Hollywood to institute a rating system so that parents could judge the suitability of movies. More recently, lawmakers mandated that a V-chip, enabling parents to block violent or sexually explicit programs, be built into all new television sets.

The debate about the connection between media violence and violent behavior heats up whenever a particularly horrible crime is linked to a movie. In one case, for example, two teenagers went on a murder spree and blamed their actions on Oliver Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers. In another case, five young men seemingly imitated a scene from the movie The Money Train and killed a New York City subway toll clerk by setting him on fire. Movies, however, are not the only culprits. In 1996, Paladin Press, publisher of the how-to manual Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, was sued by the family of a woman whose killer apparently followed a set of detailed instructions outlined in the book. The case was settled out of court, with Paladin agreeing to stop selling the book and to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to the family. In another case, two students who went on a shooting rampage in 1997 that resulted in the deaths of twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, were avid players of DOOM, a violent video game. The press was quick to establish a causal link between the excessive playing of DOOM (as well as the music of Marilyn Manson) and the mass murder.