I’m often asked about the impact of violent video games. Typically the assumption of the inquirer is that such games are without doubt a major factor in shaping violent behaviour among young people.
In fact I’ve never found any evidence to suggest that video games affect aggression in young people. From all my research, the worst case I’ve found is that video games (not just violent ones) can cause frustrations that lead to a very brief increase in aggression, but nothing significant or long lasting. Recently the notion of violent video games reared its head in the recent shootings in America – there was a good response to this in Psychology today.
Now let’s look at TV and film – again minimal evidence – but there was a good longitudinal study on the effects of the media on its consumers (not just young people). The study suggests that our exposure to negativity on TV correlates with the level of negativity in our world view. This leads to an increase in aggression as we are always in ‘defence mode’. It is also expressed in other behavioural characteristics such as a lack of talking, a lack of compassion for strangers, and a higher preference for mobile phone use to avoid face-to-face contact. From a young age we are influenced by negative stories in the news and by the horrific and violent storylines of soap operas. Fuelled by these narratives, we grow up with stereotyped presumptions about the people we encounter – for example, that the youth with the hoody is likely to mug us or knife us. Our stereotypes are fed by those we consume through TV.
However, the most concerning known contributor to violence is music. There is good evidence to suggest that people who listen to heavy metal and some rock music are at higher risk of suicide. Music has a significant effect on our emotional state and the lyrics have an impact too.
Some argue that young people don’t really listen to the lyrics. However the evidence suggests that often young people like particular types of music precisely because the lyrics reflect how they feel. For others, whilst they do not fully understand the lyrics, they do absorb the overall gist of the artist’s message.
There are many common genres which increase risk-taking behaviour and aggression amongst young people. Drug and alcohol use are commonly associated with rave music. Lyrics of some music genres, such as rock, heavy metal, rap, and new emerging genres such as reggaeton, have been found to revolve around topics such as sexual promiscuity, death, homicide, suicide, and substance abuse. Most recently, some rap music has been characterised by the presence of explicit sexual language in its lyrics as well as messages of violence, knife and gun use, racism, homophobia and misogyny. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use also tend to be glorified in these songs. Rap and heavy metal music has been found to increase negative treatment of women, increase violence and aggression, and increase antisocial behaviours – including racism, homophobia and an increase substance misuse.
Young people are far more likely to listen to music than watch TV. It is a very sociable activity. Music is everywhere – played when with friends and as background music when out and about. When young people were asked what they would take to a desert island with them — more chose music than TV or gaming consoles!
So with all the evidence weighed up, it seems we are focusing our concerns on the wrong medium when it comes to protecting young people from negative influences. We often hear parents saying they wouldn’t let their kids watch a violent film or play a violent video game. Yet often we allow young people to watch news of death and violence, watch soaps with narratives of negativity and abuse, watch post-watershed dramas and crime. Even more so, we allow young people to listen to their music with no level of parental check to ensure it is appropriate.
Few question the damage this music does, yet the evidence suggests it is significant. If you want to hear some examples, just listen to the current top 40, or look up some of Chris Brown’s lyrics! Or for an even more worrying discovery, check out the emerging ‘drill music’ genre, which is renowned for its focus on death, murder and violence.
Anderson, C. Carnagey, N. (2003). Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs With Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [online]. 84 (5). [Accessed 7 August 2019]
Chen, M. Miller, B. Grube, J. Waiters, W. (2006) Music, Substance Use, and Aggression. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs [online]. 67 (3), pp. 373–381. [Accessed 7 August 2019]