I just finished watching the Netflix original series Stranger Things, and yes, it is as good as everyone says it is. Stranger Things is incredibly binge worthy. It is thrilling, fun, scary, and dark. And it is that last adjective, dark, that made me think about the shows I watch; a lot of the shows are dark. I thought through all of the programs I love to watch: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead (and Fear The Walking Dead), Ray Donovan, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil. It occurred to me that all of these shows are pretty dark and violent. This brought me to a very important (and admittedly unoriginal) question: How does violent media affect our society?
Well, thankfully I did not have to wonder too long, since there are answers to that question, but I’ll get to that a little later.
Growing up, we constantly heard from parents that society was going to be more and more violent, and it was TV’s fault, or it was the fault of violent video games. As TVs got into more homes the programs got more violent and realistic. The popularity of video games grew rapidly, and the games got more violent and realistic. The truth is, however, as media violence grew violent crimes decreased.
Were our parents wrong about violent media?
A 2015 study by Christopher J. Ferguson reviewed the field of research and concluded that there is not a consensus by researchers that violence in media creates a more violent society. Ferguson’s research then establishes that there is not a direct correlation between media violence and violent behavior. In fact, in some instances, the consumption of media violence (specifically movies and video games) actually decreased violent actions from the respondents. Ferguson states that, “despite an explosion in the availability of mass media and liberalization of violent content in the same, we are living in what is likely the most peaceful epoch in human history.” This agrees with the FBI’s statistics on violent crime, which shows that violent crimes have decreased for 12 straight years.
Ferguson’s study says nothing about morality, and so one can argue that, from a moral standpoint, violent media is not good for the soul. This might be true, but it doesn’t negate the fact there is no evidence that media violence is encouraging violent behavior. So, while violent media may not be the cause of violence, another interesting fact might lead us to the cure.
The cause of violence is more complex than the simple algorithm of violent movie + child = violent behavior. In reviewing a myriad of studies on violent behavior, the causes of violence were often found to be a complex web of events and environments, but there was a wide consensus on one thing: parental involvement decreased the chance of violent behavior. I started looking to see if the consensus on the parenting solution held true in real world events, specifically in the recent string of violent events in America, and it certainly looks like it. According to W. Bradford Wilcox,
one common and largely unremarked thread tying together most of the school shooters that have struck the nation in the last year is that they came from homes marked by divorce or an absent father. From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s “list of U.S. school attacks” involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.
Moreover, the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency reported that “the most reliable indicator of violent crime in a community is the proportion of fatherless families.” It would seem that there are many contributing factors to violent behavior, but there is substantial evidence that an engaged mother AND father is our best defense against violence.
So, were our parents wrong about violent media?
The answer is yes, they were wrong, but the fact that they cared might just be the right answer.