PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — For decades, parents have warned about the influential effect of too much violence on television. A new study is now backing that belief up with facts. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say shootings have increased at the same rate as gun violence in hit prime time TV shows such as “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Their report finds the odds of guns appearing in violent movie scenes and real-life killings involving young people in the United States has skyrocketed by more than 80 percent over the past two decades. Much like the uptick in cigarette smoking due to their use in entertainment, scientists believe the same thing is now happening with guns.
A team from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) believes the rise in shootings in real life mirrors that in popular cop and medical dramas. Compared to other forms of violence, Hollywood filmmakers are increasingly turning to guns to keep audiences entertained and spice up action sequences.
Shootouts have been heavily criticized for glamorizing violence, with some people going so far as to say they encourage young people to carry weapons. With U.S. homicide rates declining over the past few decades however, the criticism has generally fallen on deaf ears. The new study has uncovered new evidence linking guns on TV to real-world shootings.
“Our research found that gun use substantially increased from 2000 to 2018 on prime-time TV dramas in the U.S., a trend that paralleled the use of firearms in homicides,” co-author Daniel Romer says in a university release. “Just as the entertainment media contributed to the uptake of cigarettes among vulnerable youth, our findings suggest that it may be doing the same for guns.”
Television is getting bloodier
In 2018, firearm-related incidents killed over 39,000 Americans and injured 70,000. Most of these victims were between 15 and 24 years-old.
The researchers analyzed 33 popular TV dramas between 2000 and 2018, which had either law enforcement, medical, or legal plot lines. These included “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “NCIS,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “The Good Wife,” “JAG,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “ER.”
Trained research assistants combed through 1,476 hours of footage and classified each five-minute segment depending on whether it contained violence and guns. This allowed them to calculate the proportion of violence in each TV show involving firearms. They then looked at the number of homicides caused by firearms for three age groups: 15 to 24, 25 to 34, and 35-plus.
“We anticipated that just as gun use has increased in popular movies, the same was true for entertainment on TV,” researchers write in the journal PLOS ONE. “We also hypothesized that if TV gun use serves to normalize the use of guns for violent purposes, this influence should be most apparent in the use of guns versus other violent methods on both TV and the real world.”
While overall violence in TV shows declined after peaking in 2011, the study finds gun violence rose steadily from 4.5 to nine percent by 2018. Likewise, the percentage of violent segments with firearms increased from 21.1 percent in 2000 to 33.3 percent in 2018. This particular trend paralleled actual shootings in the U.S. across all age groups, and especially among young people between 15 and 24.
“The odds of gun violence as a percentage of the violence on these shows increased 81% over almost two decades; the odds of a U.S. homicide being attributable to guns for people ages 15-24 increased 93%,” study authors note.
Is Hollywood causing a gun crisis in America?
So it is not because overall numbers are down that gun battles in movies do not encourage real life shootings, the researchers say.
“We don’t think you can discount the role of the media just because real-world gun homicides have gone down in recent years,” says Patrick Jamieson, director of APPC’s Annenberg Health and Risk Communication Institute (AHRCI). “Even if overall violence has gone down, the use of guns for violent purposes is still going up, particularly for young people.”
To understand whether Hollywood’s obsession with guns has translated into real world violence, experts say they’ll need to do more research.
“We have to start considering whether Hollywood’s portrayal of gun violence in order to increase the excitement of its entertainment is actually contributing to the gun violence epidemic. We think additional research is needed to see if that is the case,” Romer adds.
While there are many factors driving the rise in gun violence among young Americans, the report maintains that entertainment could be one of them.
“We recognize that it is unlikely that exposure to TV content is the major source of the longstanding higher rate of gun victimization in youth. However, our findings do add to concerns that the growing presence of guns in entertainment media contributes to their use, an association especially evident in young people. Further research is needed to determine whether exposure to gun violence in entertainment media serves to promote the use of guns, especially by youth,” the researchers conclude.
SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.