Review of the research evidence


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Video Violence

Villain or victim?

A review of the research evidence

concerning media violence and its effects

in the real world with additional reference to video games

Dr Guy Cumberbatch

The Communications Research Group

A report prepared for

The Video Standards Council

There are two basic reasons for this VSC publication.
Ever since the advent of video in the early eighties the video industry has from time to time come under media and political attack. The allegation is frequently made that watching video violence has an adverse effect on the viewer. All too often the allegation is linked to a particular tragedy of the moment. People have been looking for something to blame and video has been a soft target. All too often the allegation is completely without foundation. People have not examined the facts or read the evidence. Since the mid-nineties computer games have come under the same media and political attack.
The VSC receives an ever-increasing number of enquiries from members of the public and more particularly teenage schoolchildren, university students and older academics. The schoolchild may have been given a school project concerning violence on the screen, the university student may be interested in screen violence as part of a media studies degree course and the older career academic may be researching the subject in greater depth.

Against this background the VSC has asked Dr Guy Cumberbatch (a leading expert in the field) to prepare a review of the research evidence relevant to this subject. It should enable those who are seriously interested in the subject to read what the real evidence is and reach an informed opinion.

The VSC does not argue that there is not or cannot be any link between screen violence and actual violence. It does argue that whenever the subject is debated that both sides of the argument should be considered. It does argue that conclusions should be based on real evidence and not on speculation or ill-informed opinion.
Dr Guy Cumberbatch
Guy is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of The Communications Research Group. He graduated from University College Cardiff with a Special Honours degree in Psychology and completed his PhD at Leicester University in Information Processing. Following three years post doctoral work on television violence at Leicester’s Centre for Mass Communication Research, he joined Aston University’s Applied Psychology Department as a lecturer in Multi-variate Statistics. He left academia after serving terms as Senior Lecturer and Head of Psychology to establish CRG(uk)LTD as an Aston Science Park company.
Guy attaches great importance to objectivity and thus half of all the research done by CRG has been for the regulators and half has been for broadcasters and distributors. He has been expert witness for both defence and prosecution in numerous legal cases involving the media, many of which have been test cases where new principles have been established.

Publications include Mass Media Violence and Society (Elek Science, 1975); A Measure of Uncertainty: The Effects of the Mass Media (Libbey, 1989); Pornography: Impacts and Influences (Home Office, 1989); Media Violence: Research Evidence and Policy Implications (Council of Europe, 1995) and Where Do You Draw the Line?: Attitudes and Reactions of Video Renters to Sexual Violence in Film (BBFC, 2002).
Guy was a leading expert witness for the Home Affairs Select Committee: Video Violence and Young Offenders (HMSO, 1994) and sits on the PEGI (Pan European Games Information) Appeals Committee in Brussels.


Laurie Hall (VSC Secretary-General) talks to Dr Guy Cumberbatch

Laurie: Violence on television causes violence in society, surely everyone must know this?

Guy: It is such a common claim that probably most people think it simply must be true. However, the evidence is really quite weak. For example, none of the studies looking at how children are affected by the arrival of television found much change at all. The last case was St. Helena, a British Colony in the South Atlantic Ocean which received television for the first time in 1995. Before and after studies showed no change in children’s anti-social or pro-social behaviour. On top of this, the most comprehensive analyses looking at whether violent crime rates changed alongside the growth of television in different countries have concluded there has been no link.

Laurie: But the crime rate has gone up and up since the 1950s when television was introduced and it’s got worse since video came on the scene and now we have computer games which teach our children to become criminals.

Guy: It’s certainly true that crime increased massively after the last world war, but it did so in different countries regardless of the take up of TV. There were an enormous number of changes in British society in this period. Not the least of these was the ‘baby boom’ which produced a large rise in the number of young people in the population and sadly, much crime is youth related. In fact, as the number of young people has declined, so has the crime rate every year since the mid 1990s. The British Crime Survey findings for 2003 show that victimisation rates have now fallen to those we experienced back in 1981. Violent crime has gone down by 26% since 1997.

Laurie: That’s not what I’ve read in the papers.

Guy: There is probably some confusion about crime rates. The most reliable base to use, for most purposes at least, is the annual British Crime Survey. This interviews a nationally representative sample of 37,265 people about whether they have been a victim of crime. However, police recorded crime tends to be the one mentioned most in the newspapers. The problem with police records is that most crimes are not reported to the police for various reasons. Additionally, they can be misleading as a measure of trends over time because the Home Office has regularly made changes in how crimes are logged and these have generally increased police recording rates. For example, two years ago, a new National Crime Recording Standard was introduced and this was expected to increase police figures by up to 20%. Not surprisingly, opposition MPs have seized on the police figures to criticise the government, claiming that crime has gone up, but victimisation rates haven’t. One other point to note is that there has been a big rise in people’s willingness to report crimes to the police – probably because of greater concern about crime. This is most obvious with violent crime. In the early 1950s, one quarter of all violent crime recorded by the police was classed as ‘serious’. Today it is less than 10%. Similar patterns have also been well documented in the United States. Certainly we can conclude, that since videos and video games have become prevalent, crime (especially violent crime), has gone down.

Laurie: You cannot deny that what appears on the screen has an effect - otherwise why are multi-millions of pounds spent on TV advertising?

Guy: There are two points here. First of all, most advertising tries to get people to select one brand over another (such as choosing Shell when you fill up rather than BP). It very rarely tries to change behaviour (such as use the bus or train instead of the car). Campaigns that try to change behaviour are usually a flop. Governments often use these but evaluation shows that, on their own, they normally have little or no impact. The very long-running campaigns to persuade people to wear seat belts (‘clunk, click, every trip’) or not to drink and drive (‘you know it makes sense’) had virtually no effect until the law was changed and police began to prosecute people systematically. The government faces a similar problem today with young smokers who seem quite resistant to health messages to help them quit.

The second point is that there is no real sense in which television ‘sells’ violence as a desirable behaviour for the audience other than as entertainment. The messages about television violence are overwhelmingly that baddies who engage in crime and violence get punished and this is particularly true of real world television crime and violence. Thus, in the news, we hear more about serious crime which has a very good clear up rate. With the worst cases, we keep hearing that crime does not pay such as when the villain is arrested, charged, taken to court, sentenced or moves prisons.

Laurie: Well, all right, I can see that, but you just have to walk past any school playground to see children imitating what they have seen on television or played on their games consoles.

Guy: Oh yes. The styles of play are clearly linked to the programmes they watch or the video games they enjoy. We’ve seen fashions come and go like wrestling, Pokémon, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, but now Spiderman is in. Before TV, children played murderous pirates wielding cutlasses, while a generation earlier boxing heroes inspired many a ‘violent’ game of fisticuffs. A common feature of children’s play - especially boys - is what is called ‘rough and tumble’ play. You see it in most young animals in Attenborough wildlife programmes. Children occasionally get hurt in this kind of pretend fighting, of course. But if we were to borrow Dr Who’s Tardis and whiz back through time, the scenes of children at play would probably be all essentially similar. In earlier times, the savage exploits of dashing highwaymen, brave soldiers, cowboys and Indians and heroic Roman gladiators will have all inspired children’s creative play and made anxious adults tut-tut that ‘we never played violent games like that when we were young’. We did, but we’ve forgotten.

Laurie: But there have been some awful tragedies caused by video and video games - in the eighties, the Hungerford massacre was linked to Rambo, in the nineties the murder of the toddler, James Bulger, was linked to Child’s Play 3 and more recently, the video game Manhunt was blamed for the murder in Leicester of the 14 year old lad, Stefan Pakeerah.

‘Massacre’ is the right word to describe what happened in Hungerford in 1987. On the 19th August, Michael Ryan shot dead 16 people, including his mother, before killing himself with a pistol in his burning house. Reports that he had carried a Kalashnikov AK 47 assault rifle and wore a headband seem to have been sufficient grounds for a link to be made with the Rambo film, First Blood. It was a ‘blame game’ that most of the media played, including the quality press. For example, The Daily Telegraph (21st August) in a full page spread, interleaved the accounts of Hungerford with the plot of First Blood so that Rambo became Ryan. Ryan was Rambo. As a later book (Hungerford: One Man’s Massacre) concluded: ‘The truth was a lot less colourful. For it is simply not known whether Ryan ever saw any of the Sylvester Stallone films’. Indeed, a BBC documentary investigation concluded that there was no evidence that he even had a video recorder (Ryan’s house was destroyed in the fire) and certainly none that he rented videos.

The case of two year old James Bulger was particularly shocking because his abduction in a shopping centre was captured on CCTV and shown on TV news. So we saw the two ten year old boys who were later charged with his murder. The link with a video was that the father of one of the boys - Neil Venables - had rented Child’s Play 3 some months earlier. However, the police officer who directed the investigation, Albert Kirby, found that the son, Jon, was not living with his father at the time and was unlikely to have seen the film. Moreover, the boy disliked horror films - a point later confirmed by psychiatric reports. Thus the police investigation, which had specifically looked for a video link, concluded there was none. But, of course, this received very little coverage and the lasting impression most people seem to have is of the newspaper campaigns in November 1993 blaming violent videos for the toddler’s murder. It’s worth adding that most newspapers continually referred to ‘little Jamie’, when the preferred family name (which his parents asked to be respected) was James. So the press couldn’t even get that right.

The Manhunt case came up when a 17 year old, Warren LeBlanc, pleaded guilty to murdering his 14 year old friend, Stefan Pakeerah who was stabbed and repeatedly beaten with a claw hammer. It became a major news story. The Daily Mail devoted its front page to the case with the headline ‘MURDER BY PLAYSTATION’ and it received similar treatment elsewhere (e.g. Killing ‘incited by video game’. The Guardian 29th July). The essence of the story was that (a) the police had seized the video game Manhunt as evidence; (b) the murdered boy’s father, Patrick, said ‘the way Warren committed the murder – this how the game was set out – killing people using weapons like hammers and knives. There is some connection between the game and what he has done’; (c) Stefan’s mother, Giselle, said ‘I think I heard Warren’s friends say that he was obsessed with the game’. Most reports described Giselle as saying ‘I heard’ rather than ‘I think I heard’. Only the local paper The Leicester Mercury (29th July) noted that by the time of the trial, the police had decided that the game was not linked.

In the days and weeks following, the case continued to receive considerable media attention when Dixons withdrew the game form all its stores, then Giselle Pakeerah announced that she was going to sue the game’s manufacturer. For many newspapers, all this was taken as further proof of the game’s guilt. But, from the outset, the story was hardly an open and shut case. The police had seized the game from the murdered boy’s house and not the killer’s (although Warren had lent the game to his friend). Perhaps the final word on Manhunt must be that given in court when Warren was sentenced to life imprisonment: ‘The prosecution and defence barristers insisted at Leicester Crown Court that the video game played no part in the killing’ (The Leicester Mercury, 3rd September, 2004).

In none of the above cases is there much beyond speculation to link video violence with the murders. Indeed, Kate Adie made a BBC Panorama documentary which investigated eight crimes where a ‘good link’ had been claimed with media violence. None of the cases stood up to scrutiny. James Ferman, Director of the BBFC concluded 25 years of inquiries into copycat violence with the comment: "I do not know of particular cases where somebody has imitated a video and gone out and actually committed a serious crime as a result of what they have seen".

Laurie: What about America? Those terrible school shootings, like Columbine High School, were linked to violent video games weren’t they?

Guy: That was said. It’s a pity we could not get Kate Adie to go over and have a close look at the evidence. There have been half a dozen or more cases where school killers have been described as ‘obsessed’ with violent video games but the evidence seems as flimsy as in the UK cases above. The fact that with the Columbine shootings the lads played Doom is not distinctive or significant when most of their class mates would also have played it. Interestingly, the FBI has recently produced a threat assessment manual for predicting school shooters. It includes ‘fascination with violence-filled entertainment’ but note that here, the media violence is used as a symptom in risk assessment and in no way suggests a cause. The obvious problem with the school massacres in the USA is the easy access to lethal firearms which these clearly disturbed individuals had. But, perhaps we should restrict our anxieties to this country.

Laurie: Well maybe, but aren’t they now treating screen violence as a health hazard, just like smoking, in America?

Guy: American politics take some understanding! There were 28 Congressional Hearings about television violence between 1954 and 1996. On one side were those arguing that control was needed because violence was like industrial pollution and a health hazard. On the other, were those who said ‘Oh, no it’s not’ and claimed television violence was protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (which grants freedom of speech). In these hearings, evidence was batted around, new research commissioned and lawyers briefed, creating a mini industry. Then in 1996, the Telecommunications Act was passed, requiring all new television sets (over 13") to be fitted with a ‘V’ chip by 1st January 2000. This chip reads the information about a programme supplied by the broadcaster - very similar to the information which you, Laurie, introduced much earlier at the Video Standards Council to put on videos. The idea is that parents can then set this chip to block programmes which they don’t want their children to watch. It took some time to introduce because broadcasters had to set up a ratings system to apply to all their programmes. Even then the first ratings were just by age group. In America they don’t even have a watershed policy like we have here....

(Laurie interrupts: Do you think this V chip is a good idea?)

Guy: I’m very much in favour of classification schemes and warnings as an essential part of consumer advice. But a ‘V’ chip law is daft. More than half of 5-8 year olds have a TV in their bedroom. They wouldn’t be bought new ones before analogue transmissions cease and we move to digital multi-channel services. Then for a TV to work at all, it will have to be plugged into a decoder (which will have parental locks). In the USA, three years after the ‘V’ chip was introduced, less than one in twelve parents with the system actually used it. It’s been a flop.

Going back to your question about television as a health hazard, I don’t think the United States Congress, in passing the ‘V’ chip bill, really thought it was reducing a health hazard. President Clinton realised from focus groups that he was beginning to lose the middle class vote. The ‘V’ chip was a fairly simple way of demonstrating that the government was responding to public concerns about television. Research evidence about the effects of television was essentially irrelevant, though to be sure, a number of these researchers claimed that television was a health hazard.

Laurie: There is a wealth of research evidence to prove the link between television and violence. You cannot ignore this.

Guy: There has indeed been an enormous amount of research. Some years ago, one estimate claimed that there were around 3,500 studies on media violence. The American Congress has spent many millions of dollars on the subject. It is also true that most researchers claim that most studies show a link. However, many other serious minded academics disagree. I’ve read every single study now and spent most of this year re-reading and catching up on the field. I would not call the research evidence a ‘wealth’ at all. There are very many non-significant findings. Those that are significant seem unreliable, inconsistent and often flatly contradict other studies. Collectively, it is a dreadful ragbag of evidence.

Laurie: OK. Even if you can’t prove that screen violence causes violence, you must accept that it’s common sense that it does?

Guy: I have great respect for common sense. Trial by jury - a vital component of our justice system - relies on the commonsense of ordinary people. But so do lynch mobs who convince themselves that what they do is a triumph of common sense. I spend a lot of my time trying to understand public attitudes to identify policy implications. Common sense views are really quite complex. Those who think that television violence affects people always mention other people’s TV programmes, not the ones they like. Most young people of almost any age will say that media violence could be a problem for someone younger than them. Our common sense comes, in part, from gut reaction. Most parents will prefer their children to watch the programmes they enjoyed and not the new ones which their children relate to. Beavis and Butthead really alarmed many parents. But probably no more than in the 1950s when there were calls to ban films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Rock Around the Clock (1956) because of their ‘bad influence’ on young people. In The Wild One (1954), when the Marlon Brando character is asked, "What are you rebelling against?" he replies, "What’ve you got?" Subversive stuff!

Common sense doesn’t live in vacuum and our reactions are shaped by media reports telling us that crime has gone up (when it has not) or one more video killer has struck (when a cool look at the evidence would reveal only speculation) or that research now shows proof that there is a link with television or video violence (when the evidence is at best flimsy). It is a pity that bad news is such good news for journalists. The truth is more mundane, rarely reported and certainly would not make the headlines

Laurie: But surely the continual exposure to violence on the screen must have a long-term effect. It must make people insensitive to real violence in society?

Guy: Why? You surely won’t feel less upset if you are mugged, or less angry if your neighbour is or less distressed by the next brutal murder of a child today than you did before watching all the video violence that you have to watch in your job. Will you? In any case, as we’ve seen, people are far more likely to report less serious violence these days than they have ever been. The death of the Princess of Wales seems to have generated an all time high in public grief. The murder of James Bulger not only ‘gripped’ this nation with anxiety, shock and horror, but echoed around the televisual world. I’m quite sure that if people watch a lot of horror films, they react less to screen horror. But the worst thing is expecting the worst. Those who don’t like screen violence often look away and hide their eyes when they expect something nasty. If you get them to look, they will usually agree that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. We might get ‘used’ to screen violence but I really don’t think this has anything to do with our sensitivity to the real world.

Laurie: OK. What are you saying? That anything goes? That there should not be any limits on screen or video violence?

Guy: Oh, no. Not at all. It seems perfectly reasonable that there should be what the Americans call ‘community standards’. For example, you will probably remember one rumour circulating before videos were regulated was that you could get a copy of the post mortem of Elvis Presley on video. It wasn’t true. But the rumour at least reminded most people that there are clear limits to what we can tolerate as public entertainment. On the other hand, I cannot think of any research evidence which might indicate that watching such a video would ‘harm’ people who might chose to watch it. I think the obvious problem is in specifying too tightly in advance what can or cannot be shown without examining matters on a case by case basis. Perhaps a good example is two years ago, when Channel 4 transmitted a live autopsy conducted by Professor Von Hagens of Bodyworlds fame. A number of newspapers predicted a public outcry but there were only a few complaints from viewers.

Of course, like most people, there are quite a few videos and video games which I wish had never seen the light of day, but we need to have good reason to censor or ban material. We should remember that in the UK, video is far more stringently regulated than anywhere else in Europe. In the UK it is a very serious offence to supply a video or video game classified by the BBFC as ‘18’ to anyone under that age. In the rest of Europe classifications are only advisory and almost anything goes at an age ‘16’ classification.

Laurie: Anything else you want to add, Guy?

Guy: Two things really. First of all, while the research evidence on media violence causing harm to viewers is wildly exaggerated and does not stand up to scrutiny, parents should not be complacent. A balanced media diet is obviously to be recommended, so parents should establish ground rules within which they can negotiate with their children to achieve this. And the media diet must form part of the overall balance of leisure activities.

Secondly, I would like to see more pro-social media fare because I do think this might well help make society a better place. Punching someone on the nose is an instinctive reaction which we don’t have to watch on the screen to learn. Negotiating conflict situations without violence needs learned skills which perhaps television, video and computer games might help develop. Who knows? Perhaps one day governments might learn to negotiate better and declare war less. Perhaps then they might stop providing the most obvious example of the virtue of violence.

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