When two young gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 13 students and a teacher, and injured 21 before killing themselves in 1999, an ongoing, fiery debate about the media's influence was once again ignited.
The 1999 Columbine High School massacre and extensive coverage of the event by news programs, documentaries, books and blogs appeared to side with those who believe that violence depicted graphically in movies and video games causes, contributes to, and influences violent behavior and even murder.
Both Harris and Klebold played violent "murder-simulation" video games, and were fans of the controversial movie "Natural Born Killers" about a husband and wife pair of mass murderers who received intense media coverage. News reports said that the boys watched this movie many times and knew the dialogue verbatim.
Making the Connection from Media to Real Life
Proving, however, that a causative link exists between media violence and murder is problematic if not impossible, according to Stuart Fischoff, emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology.
"There hasn't been one psychological research study - ever - that helped predict or understand the Columbine shootings," he said.
Research in this area is often flawed, Fischoff said. Many researchers start a study with a particular opinion or point of view, and then ignore data that contradicts that point of view. He said another problem is generalizing what researchers observe in laboratories to real-world behavior.
Research has shown that violent images create an "arousal effect" where some people are more prone to aggressive acts after viewing something violent, but they're also likely to eat, walk and talk faster, Fischoff said. To say that the movie or game or program caused a murder, however, is a stretch. But that doesn't mean that the mass media are completely innocuous.
Once you have a school massacre, it's likely to become a stimulus for other high school massacres, or so-called "copy cat" crimes. So it's imperative that the media know how to inform the public without exacerbating or teaching other kids how to go out and copy this type of tragedy, Fischoff said.
Fischoff added that the media have a responsibility to present crimes within a statistical context. For example, Fischoff was asked by a California news organization to provide psychological commentary about robberies occurring at ATMs.
However, the news stories about the robberies were scaring people and keeping them from using the cash machines. So Fischoff told the news organization that he would comment on the burglaries only if the news story included statistics that compared the number of ATM transactions per day across the city to the number of robberies that were occurring. As he expected, the number of transactions was extremely large compared to the relatively small number of robberies. By reporting information that was within a statistical context, the news story he participated in helped dispel hysteria rather than spread it, he said.
Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University are two researchers who have stated that exposure to media violence causes behavioral violence. In a 2001 article that appeared in the American Psychologist, Bushman and Anderson said that research shows that only a correlation needs to be shown to demonstrate the negative effects of media, not a causative link.
The article, Media violence and the American public: Scientific fact versus media misinformation, has been cited over 100 times and used as reference material in testimony before the U.S Congress. But Dr. Jerald J. Block, a psychiatrist in private practice and also a researcher interested in technology's effects on individuals, questioned this assertion.
In an online interview appearing on Destructoid.com, an online gaming community with over a million readers worldwide, Block, said that he was surprised at the assertion of Bushman and Anderson, so he looked up the reference articles cited by these researchers to see how the authors justified these "weak" correlations. He was shocked by what he found.
"To my surprise, I found most of the articles never calculated a correlation," Block said. "Moreover, they did not offer even enough data to calculate one."
He states that he was unable to reproduce any of the original research in that article, and that two years later, "Bushman and Anderson claimed that they modified their data; the published correlations were actually estimates."Block said even the estimates were done poorly.
These are the types of controversial studies that assert a link between media and behavior that researchers such as Fischoff and Block dispute.
Yet despite questionable statistical calculations and research conclusions, Block believes that technology does affect individuals, and often negatively. In a 2007 article on the Columbine shootings for the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, Block wrote that content of video games isn't the issue, it's the fact that Harris and Klebold were so heavily immersed in a virtual world.
"They had an intense relationship with their computers that was critical to both motivating and facilitating the attack," Block stated.
He goes on to state that playing as many video games as Klebold and Harris played, or extreme amounts of computer usage, changes people. But he stresses that it's the overuse of media, not its content, that affects behavior.
A few months before the shootings, Harris and Klebold got in trouble with the police and their parents, and their computers were taken from them. Now they couldn't escape to their alternative reality, which they preferred to real life. Block said the teens sudden withdrawal from the virtual world contributed to the Columbine crisis. He compares this type of addiction to alcohol addiction:
"In moderation, it can be healthy and helpful. In excess, it can be destructive and isolating. And, if the person abruptly goes 'dry,' the immediate situation can be dangerous."
Block admits that this hypothesis requires more scientific study, and he calls for others to submit case reports to either support or invalidate his conclusion.
Media Psychology Expert Fischoff said that mitigating factors make it nearly impossible to sort out cause and effect. Traumatic childhoods, peer pressure (see Peer Pressure), bullying (see Bullying), medications, and a host of other factors must be considered when trying to understand behavior.
But debating violence in the media is still important, Fischoff added. Media influences society, and media "transforms society," he said. But it's a much more complex, scientifically, than saying media causes violence.
However, other researchers, politicians and organizations disagree. Which keeps the field of Media Psychology on the frontline of studying this topic, which is integral to the overall health and well being of society.
If you are interested in understanding how the mass media influence behaviors and transform society, and you would like to study topics such as violence in the media, you should consider a career in media psychology.
Learn how you can enter the new and growing field of Media Psychology by contacting schools offering Master's programs in Media Psychology. You may also transition into media psychology after earning a PhD in another psychology field, so contact as many schools as you can who offer PhD programs in psychology to learn more about their programs and your options.
Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.