The debate about whether on-screen violence leads to similar acts being carried out off-screen is one which has raged for years and split opinion.
Many times when seemingly incomprehensible crimes are carried out, those looking for motives turn to the possibility that it could be because of what the perpetrators have watched or what games they have played.
It’s one of the things investigators into the shooting in Colorado, when suspect James Holmes is alleged to have shot 70 people, killing 12, at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises will have looked at.
And, more recently, politicians have called for a US-wide study into the impact of violent video games on youngsters and a review of rating systems after the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.
Now worldwide think-tank, The International Society for Research on Aggression (IRSA), says that violent television programmes, movies and video games do increase aggression and experts there are urging parents to keep a close eye on what their children are viewing.
A new report by the organisation has concluded that there is evidence to show that violence in the media can trigger aggressive thoughts or feelings that are already present.
The IRSA commissioned the International Media Violence Commission to look into the issue a year ago. IRSA chairman Craig Anderson explained the brief was to look at not only what research literature says but also to make recommendations about public policy.
Aside from being sources of imitation, the commission found that violent images like movie or game scenes or comic book pictures can activate aggressive thoughts which an individual already has. Furthermore, if these aggressive feelings are repeatedly activated because of exposure to on-screen violence, they are more likely to influence behaviour – in other words, the more violence someone watches, the more likely they are to commit violence themselves if they are already predisposed to such acts.
The commission also concluded that those who watch violent images may see “hostility and aggression in the world” where it perhaps doesn’t exist, beginning to “feel some ambiguous actions by others (such as being bumped in a crowded room) are deliberate acts of provocation.”
It came up with a number of recommendations including urging parents to keep a “watchful eye” on the viewing habits of their youngsters, that they do not rely on ratings systems alone, that screen use limits should be set and they should talk to their children about media content to “promote critical thinking when viewing”.
The commission also says schools have a role to play in teaching pupils to be critical consumers of the media. “Just like food,” says the report, “the ‘you are what you eat principle applies to healthy media consumption’.”
Finally, the report recommends improved ratings or classifications. Anderson said: “Media ratings themselves need to be done by an independent entity – meaning, not by an industry-influenced or controlled system. They need to be ratings that have some scientific validity to them.”