With every high-profile act of violence comes a renewed debate about the role of violent media in the perpetrator’s decision to act violently. New research out of The Ohio State University shows that seeing guns in the media may be one among many factors that could contribute to gun violence.
Researchers invited 104 children ages 8-12 to a lab where they watched 20 minutes of one of two PG-rated movies—one that showed guns and one that didn’t show guns. Researchers then observed the children playing in the room for 20 additional minutes. A cabinet in the room contained a real, disabled gun. Results of the study found that the kids who watched the movie that showed guns pulled the trigger of the real gun more often on average (2.8 times) than kids who watched the no-gun movie (.01 times). In addition, kids who watched the movie with guns held the gun for an average of 53.1 seconds, while those who saw the no-gun movie held the gun for 11.1 seconds on average.
According to an article in Forbes magazine, the authors of the study said this about these findings: “‘The results from this experiment suggest that exposure to gun violence in movies increases interest in guns in the real world,’ wrote Kelly Dillon, PhD, and Brad J. Bushman, PhD. ‘We believe that these data are a compelling start to the conversation on the various factors that can increase children’s interest in guns and violence.’”
Without getting into a debate about gun control, here are my thoughts about this research. I don’t think this in any way shows that exposure to media violence is the sole source of blame when we try to figure out why someone commits violent crimes. But, I think that the study does provide some evidence that kids see guns as less bad when they see them in the media. And of course, there are countless other factors that go into someone’s choice to commit a violent crime.
What I’m really interested in, however, is why seeing guns in the media leads to children’s increased interest in guns in real life. I think one reason could be—and research shows this to be the case— that the consequences of using violence (and in this case, guns) is rarely shown in the movies. I can’t begin to imagine the psychological toll that using a gun against another human could have on the shooter, yet media rarely shows this. In addition, guns are often used by the “good guys,” and when the good guys use guns it is often portrayed as justified. This is all to say that I don’t think media (especially entertainment media, such as movies) shows the whole truth about what it means to use a gun.
I don’t know what the solution is to gun violence. I don’t know why guns are so fascinating. I don’t even know if this research tells us much about the role of media violence on actual gun use. But this research suggests that it wouldn’t hurt if parents started limiting children’s exposure to guns in the media.