For the last four decades, there has been a cyclical trend by prominent lawmakers and media outlets associating violent media, including music and video games, with negative behaviors like murder, mass shootings, and suicide.
Studies that positively associate violent media with violent behavior don’t hold up under scrutiny, particularly when accounting for mediating factors, such as an offender witnessing violent acts in childhood. Studies that blame violent acts on violent media generally suffer from methodological flaws and publication bias. Further, the relationship is often in the opposite direction, with the usage of violent media resulting in lower levels of violent and juvenile crime. Most recently, video games and metal music have been getting the blame for mass shootings again, so I’ll go through each of these associations and say what the actual facts are. Then, I’ll talk about the real factors associated with violent shootings, and suggest preventative measures.
Metal Music and Violence
Many metal fans are familiar with the historical scapegoating of metal lyrics for violent actions, as this was something that began in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Centre led a movement that put strict restrictions on the purchasing of music with crude lyrical themes. Metal music is notorious for having lyrical themes that are shocking and counter-cultural in that they embrace themes that are socially taboo to talk about. If it were the case that violent lyrics led to more violence and aggression, then we would see disproportionate levels of violence within the metal community – but that simply isn’t the case. Music fans listen to music to relieve stress, particularly when they listen to their preferred subgenre of music. For metal fans, metal music has been shown to reduces fears about death, and metal fans generally have similar and sometimes lower levels of depression and anxiety than the general population. But what about the most extreme types of metal music? It was found that one of the shooters played in a pornogrind band, which are notorious for lyrics about violence and misogyny. I recently conducted my own research on this, and I found that metal fans that prefer immoral lyrics about murder and violence against women are no less moral in how they reason compared to music fans with other lyrical preferences. Adding to that, it has been recently found that people that prefer violent lyrics are equally repulsed by real violence as people that don’t enjoy violent lyrics. In sum, people that enjoy violent lyrics are not more violent, they are not more immoral, and they are able to separate fictional violence from real violence. Metal music does not cause people to behave more violently, even when metal fans explicitly listen to lyrics about violent behaviors.
Video Games and Violence
Not only does enjoying violent games not predict violent crimes including homicide and aggravated assault – the opposite is actually true. Yearly trends in video game sales for the past 33 years have not correlated with violent crime – both concurrently and up to 4 years later. More specifically, a study by Markey, Markey, & French found that:
“Monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides 2 months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”
Their rationale for this decrease is that playing video games, much like listening to music, is cathartic. Video games and music are outlets for negative emotions and are used as a way to relax, so when these media sources are used to cope with daily stressors, then a person is less likely to commit violent acts.
So Why Do Mass Shooters Listen to Violent Music and Play Violent Video Games?
Yes, it is frequently the case that violent shooters engage with and prefer violent media, but their violent behaviors are not caused by the violent media. Individuals who are prone to commit violent acts seek out media that reinforces their worldview, so they seek out violent video games, and they intentionally seek out music with lyrics that reinforce their violent tendencies. Most people are engaging these mediums as a form of entertainment and catharsis, but for people who already have violent tendencies, they seek out these forms of media to further embrace the feelings they already have. They use violent media to reinforce their views about violence; the violent media does not cause them to perform acts of violence. To state it another way, violent people have violent tendencies and ideation before they ever engaged with violent music and/or video games.
So What Does Cause Mass Killings?
We have established that violent behavior is not caused by violent media (music, video games, horror movies, etc.). I will first address the role of mental illness. Although media outlets also point the finger at mental illness, it is infrequently the case that these mass shooters have any form of mental illness, or that mental illness is the cause of the shooting. The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Blaming mental illness for violent acts only further stigmatizes mental illness, which will cause less people to seek treatment. It is still important to destigmatize treatment and get people affordable help when they need it, but mental illness is not what is causing mass shootings in the vast majority of cases. There are several real predictors of violent behavior, including a person’s social and family background. Many of these shooters experienced childhood trauma at a young age, such as parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying, which are often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality. People that see violence in their own home as children are more likely to perform violent acts as adults. These individuals also tend to have more narcissistic personalities, so these mass shooters are conducted as a way to make themselves seem important and symbolically immortal. These shooters are seeking fame, and they do so by taking the lives of others, knowing that it will broadcast their names across all of the news channels and across social media. This is also why shooters tend to fetishize other shooters, similarly idolizing them, while modeling their own massacres after previous ones. It is for this reason that I do not name any of the people that have participated in the killing of others within this article. Their goal is immortality, and they receive it through media exposure. If we stop glorifying these shooters, if we stop giving them power through the media, then they will have less incentive to perform these heinous acts.
There also tends to be a specific crisis point prior to the shootings where the shooter becomes despondent and angry in the weeks or months prior to the shooting, largely stemming from an event that is perceived as the last straw, or the breaking point for a person. So be aware of behavioral changes in your loved ones, keep them close, and work to keep communication flowing. For some these crisis points result in suicide, but for others, they take out their frustration through killing others. This crisis moment can last for months, so when combined with a fascination and fetishization with other shootings, this is why shootings tend to happen in clusters. There is a contagion or domino effect, where shooters inspire other shooters, so people in points of crisis around the same time will be more likely to commit shootings around the same time. There is a positive relationship between spreading information about mass shootings over social media and additional mass shootings. In other words, increased availability of information about shootings facilitates more thought about committing a shooting. So, many factors contribute to mass shootings, and it is likely always a combination of these factors that lead to these tragic events occurring.
If we want to prevent these massacres, we need to stop glorifying them, and we need to address underlining problems that lead to these acts of violence, including acts of violence in the home, such as child abuse and domestic violence. We need to make it easier for people that have experienced childhood trauma to seek help for that trauma without fear of stigmatization. We need to stop letting media outlets and social media platforms make celebrities out of killers by changing the focus of these events to the lives of the victims, instead of the lives of the murderers. We need to stay connected with other people and be aware of when they exhibit unusual and extended periods of despondence. A major warning sign is a fascination with previous shootings and massacres, so we should be aware of people with an unhealthy fascination with previous tragedies. The vast majority of shooters are also suicidal, so it is important to watch for depressive episodes and suicidal ideation. Lastly, when people are having difficulty building successful lives for themselves, then we should have programs in place for the betterment and success of people who are struggling, so they do not seek to kill others for either a rebuttal against a society that has turned its back on them, or as a means to seek success and fame when other means have failed.
Metal music doesn’t cause violence. Video games don’t cause violence. But both can help prevent violence, and so can you, by being aware of the real factors that contribute to shootings and massacres.