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Some Violent Entertainment Causes No Harm. Guns on the Other Hand...


In the wake of the NRA's bizarre press conference today, the news media will no doubt look into the gun group's accusations that entertainment media, with its propensity to violence, causes gun violence, if for no other reason than to debunk the NRA's bitter-toned deflection of blame.  So I'm hesitant to even address the issue lest I give credence to that misdirection.

But there can be no question that the causal link between entertainment violence (whether in the form of video games or TV programming or even web content) and gun violence (or any other violent act for that matter) is complex and subtle, while the existence of guns and gun violence are 100% causally linked. It is a tautological truism that guns cause gun violence.  And often lost in the debate over entertainment violence is research that clearly concludes that some kinds of entertainment violence are not harmful.

According to the bona fide top researchers in the field of video violence and its effects on viewers, particularly children,  the context or way in which violence is depicted dictates whether the violence might lead to pro-social benefits or anti-social risks.  In short, when it comes to entertainment violence, the kinds of messages portrayed by the violence determine its impact.

For example, "violence that is undeserved or purely malicious decreases the risk of imitation or learning of aggression" while "portrayals of punished violence can  decrease the chances that viewers will learn aggression."  Perhaps most importantly in documenting the non-harmful effects of entertainment violence, studies indicate that "showing the serious harm and pain  that occurs from violence can discourage viewers from imitating or learning aggression."

Still, no one in the academic community seriously doubts that there is too much violence in entertainment or that depicted violence can cause fear and aggression.  Many of those same researchers cited above spearheaded the largest television violence study conducted to date, which examined over 10,000 hours of television over a three-year period involving 300 people across four universities. (Full disclosure:  I was involved in the launch and first year of this study on behalf of the cable industry).

Although the goal of that study was not to assess the impact of video entertainment violence, but rather to look at the frequency and types of violence shown, among other goals, it nonetheless started with the foundation that television violence contributes to harmful effects on viewers.  So there's no question that society should continue to monitor and even limit the violent messages we embrace.

It's murky territory when it comes to tying violent entertainment to violent behavior.  It's not at all murky that the sole purpose of guns is to cause violence or at least the threat of violent, bodily harm.  The two things, violent entertainment and the existence of so many guns, should not therefore be conflated.

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