Kevin Browne on film, TV and violence

The cinema shootings by a young 24 year old man in Denver Colorado, at a late night screening of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, has raised questions again about the link between violence in the media and violent crime.

Professor Kevin Browne, a Chartered Psychologist, discusses the connections.

Whether the context of the latest Colorado shootings was motivated by a cinema providing a large target of numerous people or linked with violence portrayed in films is yet to be determined.  

Sometimes the perpretator is partly triggered by feelings of failure and low self-worth, partly wishing to emulate a scene from a film. This atrocity evokes memories of the Hungerford and Columbine massacres.

Although there is strong evidence for negative effects on school children who view violent images in the media, making them more aggressive in the short and long term, the research evidence for older children, teenagers and young adults is inconclusive.

The small amount of good quality research suggests that boys are more likely to show aggression after viewing violent media than girls and that violent acts by heroes is more influential than violence from villans.

In my address to the Society's Division of Forensic Psychology Annual Conference in Cardiff last month, I said that the effects of violent imagery on the screen in TV, films, DVDs and interactive computer games are not the same for every person.

The importance each TV or film scene or computer game image has to an individual, and the meaning they ascribe to it, is determined by their background and the context in which it is viewed.

For example, experiencing “real” violence in the home may have a considerable effect on how violence on the screen is perceived and adopted as an example of acceptable behaviour with volatile reactions seen as a way of having power and control over others. These volatile reactions may then be triggered by media violence and incorporated into a pre-existing anti-social behavioural repertoire.

Violent computer games, film and TV reinforce the distorted thoughts and antisocial behaviours of those already predisposed to violent behaviour. However, for those individuals not predisposed to violence it is unlikely that these media experiences would encourage them to commit violence, although it is well established that non-violent individuals become desensitized to violent imagery by frequently watching violent TV and film.  

Young people who offend against others have been shown to be characterised by low self-esteem (feeling easily threatened), by distorted ideas about physical confrontation, by low empathy for others, by self-centred moral values and by a preference for violent DVDs or computer games.

Long-term outcomes for children and young people viewing media violence are difficult to establish, partly because of the methodological difficulties in linking behaviour with past viewing, and there is only weak evidence from correlation studies linking media violence directly to crime. However, there is some evidence that suggests children who grow up in violent families are more susceptible to violent images and more likely to commit violent acts.

Research shows that teenagers and young adults from violent homes are already predisposed to anti-social behaviour and delinquency and this predisposition influences their increased preference and memory for violent images from media entertainment and computer games. Compared to other teenagers and young adults they are more likely to act out violent scenes and incorporate what they see into their violent acts. 

Therefore, violent media entertainment and computer games have to potential to actively increase the frequency of violent crime, in those teenagers and young adults already predisposed to aggression as a result of adverse past experiences. By contrast, other teenagers and young adults have a passive response to violent images and are more likely to develop a fear of crime and be desensitised to violence by others.