Skip to main content

What Jim Carrey got wrong

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Special to CNN
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Ferguson: Actor tweeted he won't support his new movie due to violence
  • Ferguson: Existing data do not link media violence with shootings or other violence
  • He says scholars use, at best, mixed study results to blame media for violent behavior
  • He says it distracts from roots of violence: poverty, inequality, poor mental health care

Editor's note: Christopher J. Ferguson is chair of the psychology and communication department at Texas A&M International University. He is the author of the novel "Suicide Kings."

(CNN) -- Last weekend, actor Jim Carrey tweeted that he has decided to withdraw his support for his movie "Kick-Ass 2" due to its violent content. Carrey said he became uncomfortable with the violence in light of last year's tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. People must make their own decisions about what media are appropriate for themselves and their family, and I respect Carrey's choices. Yet, as someone who researches media violence, I worry that some will draw the wrong message from his position.

Existing data do not link media violence with mass shootings or other societal violence. Debate continues in the general public and within academia, but the evidence just isn't there. The U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, in a joint report in 2002, found no evidence that school shooters consume more violent media than others. And although media probably have become more violent in recent decades, this period has also seen a massive decline in youth violence to 40-year lows, not an increase.

Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson

Experimental evidence from social science has been mixed, and many of the studies are of poor quality. One scholarly paper that endorsed the "harm" view suggested religious books with violence such as the Bible would cause aggression just as much as a violent movie, something of which readers may wish to be aware. The U.S. Supreme Court rightfully rejected evidence such as this as unpersuasive when considering the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association violent video game case in 2011.

So why do beliefs about media violence persist? Periods of moral panic tend to surround media. Media from penny dreadfuls (trashy novels popular in the 19th century) to comic books to music (jazz, Elvis Presley, rock music, etc.) to books such as Harry Potter have often been blamed for society's ills. After events such as the Sandy Hook rampage, blaming the media can actually be reassuring. We construct the narrative that an individual such as Adam Lanza might never have committed his horrific crimes if not for the crucial influence of media.

Such narratives give us a sense that the uncontrollable might be controlled. And to maintain them, we simply ignore cases that don't fit them, such as a rash of violence in the months after Sandy Hook committed by elderly men with no discernible connection to violent media. This allows us to maintain an illusion of correlation where none exists.

Jim Carrey slams his new film, but why?
Big names, big money back gun control
Carrey takes on gun lobby

Professional advocacy groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics share some of the blame in promoting unnecessary fears. As I detail in a recent report for the journal American Psychologist, previous statements by the group have been error-prone on even basic details, such as the number of studies, and simply omit those studies that conflict with alarmist messages.

Unfortunately, people often take these policy statements too seriously, forgetting professional advocacy groups tend to benefit politically by identifying social crises their professions can help "fix." The committees that write these statements have historically included scholars highly invested in a particular ideological view of media reviewing their own work and declaring it beyond debate (a chance I'd love to have with my own work one day). They should not be mistaken for careful, neutral, objective reviews.

There are real dangers in focusing too much on media as the cause of violent crime. Speaking as a mental health provider, I've seen no tangible improvement in the delivery of mental health services in the United States. It is a tragic, lost opportunity when we squabble over the old culture wars surrounding media, rendering media bashing as the new "Twinkie defense" for criminal defendants.

Parents certainly deserve to have full information on ratings systems for media and existing controls. A recent Harris Poll suggested that individuals unfamiliar with the Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings systems for games, for instance, were those most concerned about video games -- suggesting that, as with previous moral panics, unfamiliarity breeds fear. Granted, media companies could work more -- in conjunction with schools perhaps -- to keep parents informed about the options available to them to restrict their children's exposure to violent imagery (and for the record I have no financial or personal ties to media industries).

But parents also have the right to have a full understanding of the research, its inconsistencies and limitations, and this is something the research community could do better. Debates on media have been going on for more than 2,000 years and won't end in our lifetimes. But we must remember that the most powerful impact these debates have is in their ability to distract us from the real causes of violence: poverty, inequality and the lack of attention to mental health.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher J. Ferguson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT