What is to Blame for Youth Violence? What Did We Know in 2001 That Is Still True Today?

The Media, Guns, Parenting, Poverty, Bad Programs, Or…

The first-ever Surgeon General’s report on youth violence was released by Dr. David Satcher in 2001. The report hardly made a ripple in the public debate, but what caught my attention was the press reports regarding what wasn’t in the report, rather than what was.

In a press conference when the report was released, Dr. Satcher was asked about media violence, and he responded that the media is not a major influence on youth violence. As someone who has read dozens of studies and reports about the impact of media violence on children and society, I was surprised to hear this. It sounded eerily like a report on ABC’s 20/20 around the same time, claiming that media violence does not cause violence and may actually be good for kids.

But what about the voluminous stack of research reports on the impact of media violence on youth? When a TV news magazine claims that TV violence is not dangerous, I don’t take it too seriously, but the Surgeon General’s report was a different matter. More importantly, I wondered how parents and others would respond to the “news.” This article takes a careful look at the new report, the 20/20 story, and the research on media violence, and tries to figure out what was going on in 2001 and what it tells us about the current debate on media violence almost 2 decades later.

On ABC, Jonathan Freedman, a psychology professor at Toronto University who happens to receive funding from the Motion Picture Association of America, claimed that research does not support the notion that media violence causes aggression. He trashes reports by the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others that claim that more than 1,000 studies prove the case against media violence, saying: “There aren’t over a thousand studies. There are about 200 studies, give or take a few, depending on which ones you count.”

Isn’t 200 enough?

I would have thought so, but perhaps I am biased because I co-authored some of them (many years ago) myself. But, the bottom line is that the most important issue is not the exact number of studies, but rather their quality.

There are dozens of well-designed studies that show that TV, movies and other media affect what viewers believe and how they behave. This is true of many different kinds of attitudes and behaviors – positive and negative – but many studies conclusively show a statistical link between watching violent programs and behaving aggressively. And, of course, billions of dollars have been spent on media advertising because it is well established that even brief messages can be powerful in shaping behavior. However, there are very few studies of whether exposure to media violence causes criminal behavior.

The seminal study of media violence and criminal behavior (rather than aggressive behavior) is by Leonard Eron, Ph.D. and Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D. In 1960, Eron began studying aggression and the TV viewing habits of 875 third-graders in upstate New York. They kept tracking some of those children until they were 30 years old. They concluded that the 8-year-old children who watched more violent TV programs were more aggressive. They also found the kids who scored higher on aggression when they were 8 were far more likely to be arrested as adults, more likely to have moving traffic violations, and to abuse their children.

ABC trashed this research through the words of Richard Rhodes, a scientific writer. Rhodes stated that Heusmann testified at a Congressional hearing that it was possible to predict whether someone would have been arrested by the age of 30 according to how much violent television they had watched when they were 8. According to Rhodes, this finding “electrified the committee” but is “a totally bogus finding.”

Like beauty, “totally bogus” is in the eyes of the beholder. The use of the word “predict” was probably misunderstood because its statistical meaning is different from what most of us mean when we use the word. In this study, there was a statistical analysis showing that children who watched more violent television were more likely to be arrested as adults – that watching TV violence predicts later criminal behavior. However, that does not mean that it is possible to use information about TV viewing to accurately predict exactly which children will grow up to be criminals or child abusers.

The term “predict” in this case simply means that the kids who watch more violent TV are more likely to be arrested as adults. Since criminal behavior is not very common, the statistical relationship could be caused by a small number of children who watch a great deal of violent TV and grow up to be criminals. It is not possible to accurately predict exactly which children will be influenced, because many children who watch violent TV are not arrested as adults – the research only tells us that watching violent programs increases the likelihood of arrest as adults. The study does not give us detailed biographies of these children — it focuses on a few specific behaviors, including whether they had ever been arrested, violate traffic laws, or abused their children.

Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of this one longitudinal study, there are dozens of studies showing that exposure to media violence increases the likelihood of violent behavior. Some studies found children imitating unusual aggressive behaviors that they had just seen on a TV program. Other studies are based on parents’ measures of children’s total TV viewing over a period of several weeks, linked to teachers’ ratings of the child’s general aggressiveness or cooperative behavior in school or on the playground. Note the distinction between research on violent behavior (which is relatively common) and arrests (which are relatively rare and therefore more difficult to predict unless you have many thousands of adults in your sample.)

When the Surgeon General explained that media violence is not a major cause of youth violence, he was correct that there are other causes of violence that are probably more important. However, most “risk factors” for violence – the factors that increase the likelihood that a youth will be violent — are not strong predictors by themselves. It is the combination of risk factors that tends to be associated with violence, not any one by itself. Media violence, like other risk factors, may have a very strong impact on some children, and no apparent impact on others. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know which children will be effected, and which won’t.

In his remarks, the Surgeon General specified that violence is influenced by the availability of guns. However, the report itself takes a developmental perspective: how personal characteristics interact with the social context — from prenatal factors to adolescence.

The report concluded that its most important message is that youth violence is not an intractable problem. The report claims that we have the tools to reduce or prevent violence, but that we waste most of our resources on programs that do not work or may not work, instead of those that are proven effective.

The report described the risk factors that increase the likelihood that a youth is violent and the protective factors that decrease the likelihood. They pointed out that risk factors do not necessarily cause violent behavior – they may just be correlated. Risk factors include factors that are relatively unchangeable, such as being male, hyperactive, and having a low IQ, as well as those that can potentially be changed, such as exposure to TV violence, antisocial attitudes, substance use, poverty, gang membership, and abusive or neglecting parents. Protective factors also include those that can’t be changed (being female, high IQ) and those that can be changed (positive social interactions, perceived sanctions for transgressions, parental monitoring, and school recognition for involvement in conventional activities).

The report included a table of the comparative costs and benefits of prevention and intervention programs – a purely economic approach to the issue. Several programs seem to save at least $.60 for every dollar spent – the Perry Preschool Program, the Seattle Social Development Project, Prenatal and Infancy Home visitation by Nurses, and the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America programs. Four are listed as costing much more than they save: the Syracuse Family Development Research Program, the Quantum Opportunities Program, and boot camps.

The big winners from a purely monetary perspective were three types of community-based programs for adolescent juvenile offenders: multi-systemic therapy, functional family therapy, and multi-dimensional treatment foster care. For example, the latter was estimated as saving the taxpayer more than $14 for every dollar spent compared to the costs of treatment in a regular group home.

These comparisons indicate that it is easier to save money by improving programs for juvenile offenders than by prevention efforts aimed at a more general population of “at risk” children. That’s because the kinds of childhood and youth behaviors that are linked to later violence are difficult or impossible to change in the programs that were evaluated; there were no evaluations of programs aimed at preventing broken homes, teaching parents to provide love and support to their children, improving parents’ use of discipline, or restricting children’s exposure to violent media. If we are to believe the Surgeon General’s report, we probably would want to focus on providing more and better parenting programs in schools throughout the country – and then evaluating them to make sure they work. Unfortunately, the Surgeon General’s report does not provide the detailed research information necessary to judge the accuracy of its conclusions; it is a broad overview of previously published research that provides no data for the discerning reader.

The bottom line is that there are many factors – at home, at school, and in the community, which can increase or decrease the likelihood that a youth will become violent. Media violence is one of them. In a logical world, it would be one that would be relatively easy to change, compared to poverty, family relationships, and school failure. In the U.S., it is one of many that policy makers have not done enough about, leaving parents, teachers, and youth workers with more to do, and less support than they need to succeed.

The report, entitled “Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General,” published in January 2001 is still available free at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44294/.

This article is based on Diana Zuckerman’s monthly Research Watch columns that appeared in Youth Today and were reprinted with permission.