Film Violence Is On The Rise But It's Not Making People More Violent, Study Reveals

PG-films became increasingly violent over 30 years, but crime fell among the people who were watching them, even after controlling for known factors. adike/Shutterstock

PG-13 films are getting more violent, but there's no evidence this is doing damage outside the cinema, psychologists have reported. The nature of the research can't rule out subtle effects, but the authors argue that focusing on violence in films distracts policymakers from tackling the things we know really contribute to making society more violent.

The question of whether depicting violence on screen can normalize it, and therefore make people more likely to commit assault and murder in real life, is as old as film, maybe older. Who knows, perhaps back in the day people worried the Bayeux tapestry would encourage killing? As violent crime climbed in the west during the 1970s and '80s the worries increased, with particular focus on the viewing habits of children and adolescents. As such PG-13 films, which in America can legally be viewed by children of any age, attracted particular attention.

Professor Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University confirmed one side of people's concerns. "Evidence suggests that edgier, more violent content may increase in PG-13 and PG movies over time," he said in a statement. "This is because PG-13 rated movies may be considered particularly marketable as action-oriented fun but without the graphicness that parents may consider inappropriate for younger children. This had been called a 'ratings creep'.” 

On the other hand, when Ferguson compared the violence level in films released between 1985 and 2015, he couldn’t find any off-screen effects. That's not surprising when you remember youth crime has been falling since the mid-1990s, and is now a small fraction of what it was at its peak.

In Psychiatric Quarterly, Ferguson and Villanova University's Professor Patrick Markey show that controlling for factors that definitely increase violence, like poverty and lack of educational opportunities, doesn't change the picture.

“The 'low hanging fruit' argument that suggests parents should reduce their children's exposure to violent movies as a simple way of reducing exposure to risk factors for crime, may cause more harm than good,” Ferguson said. “It may distract from the hard work of dealing with real pressing problems by focusing society, parents, and policymakers in an illusory simple fix."

It's not Ferguson and Markey's first venture debunking fears about children's viewing habits. Three years ago they published a paper in the same journal reviewing 22 studies investigating the effects of viewing sexually explicit media on teenagers' sexual behavior.

They found that once other influences have been controlled for, the effect of watching sex onscreen is so weak it's low priority for intervention. That's even if you think teenage sex is something we need to be trying to prevent. Moreover, Ferguson and Markey found the better a study's research methods were, the less it reported media impacted teenage sexual behavior.

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