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The Risks of Launching a Research Project at a Time of Moral Panic

by Christopher J. Ferguson
January 23, 2013

Every parent and concerned citizen in the U.S. has been following the national conversation about the need for a balanced response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. One area of concern that the President and Vice President highlighted in the action plan they presented last week is the role that media portrayals of violence may have on vulnerable children’s and their communities’ well-being. The President and Vice President have urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the relationship between media portrayals of violence and possible effects on public health outcomes. Here is what their announcement last week included:

Conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images, and violence: The President is issuing a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and scientific agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. It is based on legal analysis that concludes such research is not prohibited by any appropriations language. The CDC will start immediately by assessing existing strategies for preventing gun violence and identifying the most pressing research questions, with the greatest potential public health impact. And the Administration is calling on Congress to provide $10 million for the CDC to conduct further research, including investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence.

While there is no demonstrated link between video game play and violence of the kind we have seen all too often in recent years, there is an active scientific debate over what we know and do not—and which next steps the scientific community should take to more definitively understand the many factors that are associated with highly damaging anti-social behavior. To help unpack the debate, we asked Cheryl Olson, one of the nation’s leading authorities on the subject and author of Grand Theft Childhood to write a post last week, and this week have asked Christopher J. Ferguson, Department Chair of Psychology and Communication and Professor at Texas A&M, and a foremost authority on video games and violence research to weigh in on the key issues. His valuable perspective follows.
—Michael H. Levine

 

Let’s start by acknowledging that the societal response linking video games to the Sandy Hook shooting was a clear example of what criminologists call “moral panic.”  Intense debates and condemnation by some politicians, pundits and even some scholars who should have known better began before anything official had been released about the shooter, Adam Lanza’s, media use history.  And sweeping statements were made about a supposedly consistent and alarming research field that simply doesn’t exist in the way described by some.  Fortunately, the Obama administration relegated media effects to a minor role in their proposals for gun violence (given the hysterical political atmosphere they probably had to say something about it).  The Obama administration has called for $10 million in funding for gun violence research which may or (depending on reports) may not include media effects research.  But assuming it does, and assuming it passes Congress, what should we be doing?

Photo from Flickr/Inspire Kelly

First, let me note the great risks that a research project launched in such a hyper-charged moral panic political environment already begins with the stigma of being launched for the wrong reasons.  That political environment could easily inject biases into the research process and that is something the CDC will have to be very alert for.  But assuming they get past that and are committed to an objective scientific process here’s what I think we should be doing:

  1. We need to get away from the old-fashioned hypodermic needle models of media effects.  They have their choir of supporters but, by and large, the data are not encouraging for these theories.  Instead we should approach media use from more of a “uses and gratifications” approach, understanding that how people use media is more important than content.  Consider a religious book like the Bible.  Some people may use the Bible to calm themselves or seek inspiration.  Others may use the more violent passages to rile themselves up.  Understanding how people use media as active agents may, thus, be more critical than the content itself.
  2. Related to the prior point, it is important to consider media that society values (such as religious texts) not only media that society is suspicious of.  Singling out a specific form of media may be distorting and biasing to our understanding of how media, all media have or do not have influence.
  3. At present, although inconsistencies in the literature certainly exist, we can say that violent media have little appreciable effect on the general population of children.  However, it would be worth examining whether specific groups of children, such as those with elevated mental health symptoms, may experience differential effects (whether negative or positive).
  4. Scholars and the academic community must cease approaching the issue of media effects with such a clear ideological bias as it often has.  In many articles this is easily identifiable from the tone of the literature review, or citation bias therein.  It is now well understood that social science is malleable, too malleable, and a systematic ideological bias among scholars is guaranteed to do great damage to the objective scientific process and the credibility of the field.

Debates about media violence, whether in the scholarly community or general public are not going away soon.  Most of us would agree that calls for more research are a positive thing.  However, we must also be alert for the possibility that ideological biases and societal moral panic may do much to damage the objectivity of the research process as so evidently happened following the 1999 Columbine Massacre.

Video Games Sales and Youth Violence Rates, 1996-2009.

Video Games Sales and Youth Violence Rates, 1996-2009. Click the image above to see a larger version.

 

Related: Download the  Presidential memorandum (PDF).

 

 

Christopher FergusonChristopher J. Ferguson holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Central Florida and also trained at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. He has been active in publishing research papers on violent and aggressive behavior in peer-reviewed journals and scholarly books and has done clinical work with adults and juveniles in correctional settings. Currently he is an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University. His research interests include violent criminal behavior, positive and negative influences of video games and other violent media and refinements in meta-analytic techniques. His website is www.christopherjferguson.com.