Media Violence And Its Effect On Mass Shootings

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The impact that violent media content has on mass shootings has been the topic of much discussion. The verdict on this issue is in many ways split. Some argue that yes indeed it does have an effect, while others oppose this notion. The answer to this is not a simple yes or no. It is clear that violent media does not make murders of all its consumers, nor is every mass shooter an avid consumer of it. However, violent media within movies and video games is shown to effect aggression levels in its users, and in some cases it is clear that violent imagery did play some role in influencing mass shooters through social learning and desensitization.

Media Violence

On a Feburary morning that appeared to be another routine day of school for the students of Parkland High School in Florida a tragedy struck. One that would end the lives of several students and profoundly impact hundreds of others. On that morning a lone shooter walked the high school and began fatally firing upon the students there. In the span of just a few minutes 17 students were dead and many more were injured by the shooter. Although thankfully events such as this are still a relatively rare, the magnitude of the violence associated with mass shootings cannot go unnoticed. Especially because these violent actions appear to be much more a product of modern society that was not prevalent in earlier portions of this nation’s history. It is a difficult question to answer“what is at the root of these horrifying events?” In the wake of these disasters muc debate goes into attempting to determine what causes individuals to decide to needlessly kill and what can be done to prevent it in the future. The answers given by law makers and media personnel are usually rather simple, such as: stricter gun laws, mental health policies, and heighted security. Unfortunately the solution to avoiding future loss of innocent life at the hands of mass murders is an intricate one that require multiple facets of approach. The choice to commit such an act of violence is not a decision that one makes in a day. Post-analysis of many mass shooters shows tendencies of premeditation and a history of warning signs leading up to its climax of indiscriminate murder (Kamp, Campo-Flores 2018). One aspect worthy of deeper examination is the consequence of violent media content in the form of video games and movies and its impact on aggression and desensitization to killing. By no means is it reasonable to suggest that media content alone is responsible for mass shootings in their entirety. However, a strong argument can be made for a direct cause and effect relationship between media violence and real world hostility is present and it has the potential to normalize acts of violence in the minds of future killers that most individuals would find impossible.

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When addressing the idea that media can have an effect on aggression and one’s willingness to kill, it is important to consider how humans responded to killing before the mass spread of social media. After all, has not mankind continuously been killers throughout its’ history? According to LtCol. Grossman, a psychologist and author of the book On Killing, mankind has not. In his book, he explains that less than 15 percent of individual riflemen were willing to directly fire upon their enemy during World War Two with the intent to kill. That is only 15 men out of a 100 were willing to shoot at enemy soldiers with the resolve to take their life. The others either did not fire at all or simply pretended to fire and just shot over the heads of the enemy missing them intentionally. Likewise an estimated one percent of fighter pilots were responsible for 30 to 40 percent of enemy planes shot down in World War Two. Indicating that only a few pilots were willing and capable of engaging another pilot with the intent to take their life. Going back further in American history to the civil war, accounts indicate that a regiment of soldiers firing at an unprotected enemy from as close as 30 yards would kill an average of only one to two men a minute. Though, in training, these same regiments could release fire power on wooden targets that would have had the power to easily kill hundreds of enemy personnel within only a few minutes. Yet, when in battle facing other human beings the vast majority of men quietly chose not to kill their fellow man. Historical records report finding dead soldiers with muskets that had been loaded with sometimes up to 15 shots. This means that soldiers were going through the motion of preparing their weapon to fire but would only pretend to pull the trigger. It was not until as recently as the Vietnam era that the percentage of soldiers willing to shoot at the enemy with the resolve to kill reached levels of 80 to 90 percent. Modern solider kill rates are even greater with virtually all individuals willing to directly fire upon the enemy with resolve to kill them. To achieve this end the military had to radically change the way it trained its fighters. Providing them with much more realistic training in order to suppress their natural aversions to killing their fellow man. This training involved human shaped targets that fell when hit. And more recent adaptions of lifelike video simulations similar to the point and shoot games advertised to the civilian population that are present in arcades and more recently available within the privacy of one’s own home (2008). This begs the question that if this simulated killing can suppress the natural and healthy aversion of a solider to kill in combat, could it likewise do the same to children playing similar violent games and watching violent movies?

In order to better comprehend how media could push an individual towards more violent tendencies it is helpful to understand how exposure to certain stimulus can impact the human mind and change behavior. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink discusses a topic referred to as priming. He uses an experiment to illustrate priming’s effect on the human mind. In this experiment subjects are given a seemingly random lists of words usually only five or six in total and asked to create sentences using the words as quickly as possible. After they finished the subjects were instructed to walk down a hallway and inform the monitor that they were done. However, when they would get to the monitor’s office they would find them engaged in a conversation that appeared to be a coincidence but in fact was part of the test. The seemingly randomized words were in fact not random at all. In one group certain words like “rushed’, “rude”, and “entitled” were scattered throughout test. In another group words such as “nice”, “polite”, and “patient” were scattered throughout. This was to test how effectively an individual could be primed to be either polite or rude compared to a control group. The results were rather remarkable. Once the control group got to the monitors office they would on average interrupt after a few minutes. The group primed to be rude would on average interrupt much faster than the control group, sometimes within only a few seconds. Yet, the group primed to be polite on average never interrupted even when the conversation dragged on for an excess of ten minutes (SIGHT). It is astonishing how just reading a handful of words can drastically change the actions of an individual for a period of time. One can argue that the images within violent media would be much more effective at priming someone’s behavior than a handful of words. And a constant exposer to such priming could have the potential to have a more lasting effect on one’s conduct.

Furthermore, meta-analysis does show a positive correlation between violent video games and aggressive behavior and violent crimes (Glock & Kneer 2009). It has been shown that playing violent video games can have a priming effect on children. Zheng and Zhang demonstrated this by having children partake in a study where they rate the violence level of certain video games and then measured their aggression levels before and after playing the games. They found that aggression levels noticeably increased in test subjects after playing the violent video games for a reasonable amount of time (2016). Of note, the gender and pre-dispositioned aggression before playing the video games did impact the measured aggression levels in the test subjects. Meaning that males and those who had higher aggression levels prior to conducting the study exhibited greater increases in aggressive tendencies following the study. A separate study that collaborates with the results in the first showed that brain development can actually be changed in adolescence when exposed to violent media imagery. Neuroimaging was used to show that exposure to media violence in childhood can alter prefrontal mechanisms for regulating emotions and behavior. This can result in long-term increases in aggression levels and lack of inhibitory controls (Hummer 2015). This makes logical sense from a psychological perspective when viewed from the premise of Social Learning Theory, which indicates that learning occurs through observation of others and through the reception of rewards and punishments (Kassin et. all 2008). Particularly when one takes into account the premise of most violent video games is rewards based upon inflicting as many virtual causalities as possible. Even when the storyline of the video game does not encourage massive amounts killing, there is rarely any meaningful risk in doing so. Basically most violent video games establish a realistic virtual world where the player is free to commit nearly endless amounts of violence upon the computer-generated inhabitance of the game without any of the negative consequences that would accompany such acts within the real world. Violent movies are similar where it is frequent for the viewer to see massive amounts of murder and killing carried out by the protagonist with little to no consequences. They often present these killings as unimportant and normal within the fictional world of the movie, where the same activities in real life would have devastating consequences for the perpetrator.

This by no means is to propose that every consumer of violent video games and movies is a killer in waiting. Nor is it even proposed to suggest that violent media content in and of itself is accountable for a mass shooter’s decisions to carry out their violent acts. A normal human being can logically tell the difference between fiction and reality; however, as previously mentioned, on a subconscious level this exposure can prime an individual, especially one that is younger, to be more open to accepting violent behavior as normal and desensitize them to violence against other human beings. Like in the case of the Parkland shooting. It was reported that the shooter would frequently play violent video games sometimes as much as 15 hours a day. His favorite was Call of Duty, a game that simulates a soldier in combat allowing the player to rapidly kill dozens of simulated enemies from a first person perspective (SIGHT). Obviously correlation does not always equal causation. However, based off of the studies previously discussed it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Parkland shooter was not at least to some degree desensitized to killing due to his excessive use of first person shooters.

There is harsh opposition to the idea that video game and media violence plays any role in the perpetration of mass shootings. Such as Ferguson and Barnett who argue that there is not even as much as a causal relationship between the two. They wish to dispel the notion of the “profile” of a mass shooter as always being a social outcast, a loner playing video games in their basement, until one day they just snap and decide to go on a murderous rampage. It is true that there is no established concrete profile of a mass shooter. If one was to attempt to compile a profile, some commonalities would emerge but none would be universal. And mass consumption of violent video games and media would not make the list. Ferguson and Barnett point to statistics provided by The United States Secret Service to back their argument that there is no causal relationship between mass shooters and media consumption. Their statistics indicated that only 59% of shooters displayed significant interest in violent media, and the level of consumption of media was not higher than their peer groups among the general population (2011). This data can be misleading in two regards. First off it fails to account for the wide and almost unanimous consumption of violent media content in the United States. 99% of boys and 94% of girls in the United States between 12 and 17 years of age play video games (Lenhart 2015) with a significant number of those being violent in nature. So even if mass shooters are relatively on par with or even below their peers when it comes to media consumption, nearly all children are still being exposed to and desensitized by violent media content. And second it over simplifies a correlation between mass shootings and media violence. The decision by an individual to commit a mass shooting is a complex one. The road they took to get there and the influences along the way are very much unique to them. For many of these individuals media violence and video games did not play a noteworthy role in their progression to becoming a mass murder; however, for others it appeared to be a significant part of their development. For example the Columbine shooters were avid players of the video game Doom and reportedly based their plan off of the game. Or James Holmes who conducted a shooting at a screening of a Batman movie because he saw himself likened to the Joker, the infamous rival to Batman (Kassin et. all 2008). And numerous other examples are available. It would be unreasonable to assume that the complete removal of media violence from the scenario would have prevented the acts of violence carried out by these individuals. However, it would also be a gross misinterpretation of the evidence to suggest that in some cases of mass shootings violent media content did not play a significant role.

To state the obvious, mass shootings are horrific and tragic. So it is no surprise that what is at the core of these event is the topic of intense debate. Especially following in the wake of yet another tragic shooting. Media violence and its impact on aggression in young people, especially to the extreme in places like Parkland High School, is at the forefront of that debate. Yet like many other issues it is overly simplified. A society, fearful for the safety of its youth, begs the question, “does media violence cause these shootings?” And they seek a simple yes or no, black or white answer to this question. Unfortunately the answer to this, just like the motives behind the individuals who carry out these acts, is complex. Obviously, and thankfully, there is not a direct positive relationship between mass shooters and the heavy consumption of media violence. If this were the case mass shootings would arguably be a daily occurrence given that nearly all individuals consume violent media content. However, through social learning and desensitization a strong argument is present for media violence having a significant influence on at least some of the perpetrators of mass shootings.


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  4. Zheng, J., & Zhang, Q. (2016). Priming effect of computer game violence on childrens aggression levels. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 44(10), 1747-1759.
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  6. Kassin, S. M., Fein, S., Markus, H. R., & Brehm, S. S. (2008). Social psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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  8. Lenhart, A. (2015, August 06). Teens, Technology and Friendships. Retrieved from
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Media Violence And Its Effect On Mass Shootings. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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