Throwing another wrinkle into the ongoing debate over the effects of media violence, new research suggests that movies and video games might not deserve the blame for real-life crime.

Homicide rates actually fell over the past couple of decades, even as violence in movies escalated, the research found.

The findings aren't definitive, and they don't prove any cause-and-effect relationship. But study author Christopher Ferguson, chair of the psychology department at Stetson University in Florida, said they suggest that the debate over onscreen violence may be overblown.

"The idea that media has big effects on us or shapes our society is probably untenable," he said. "This doesn't mean media has no effect at all, of course, only that we need to try to move media research out of these culture wars if we're going to make any progress."

Ferguson is a critic of researchers who have tried to tie violence in movies, television and video games to crime rates in the United States. Last year, he was one of more than 200 experts who signed a statement complaining about the American Psychological Association's reliance on "inconsistent or weak evidence" to make a connection between fictional violence and real-life violence.

In one of his two new studies, Ferguson examines the level of violence in 90 movies from 1920 to 2005. With a handful of exceptions, they're the five top-grossing movies in the United States from every five years -- 1920, 1925, 1930 and so on.

It's not clear how popular the movies were among kids, who are thought to be especially impressionable to violence on screen. "I was interested in examining the movies with the greatest penetration in society," Ferguson said, "and the top-grossing movies seemed to be the most defensible way at getting to this without watching every single movie ever made."

Movie violence in this small sample of movies turned out to be higher in the 1920s (before Hollywood cracked down on explicit movies), the 1960s and from the 1980s to now.

Study compared homicide rates to level of violence in movies,...

Study compared homicide rates to level of violence in movies, video games over time Credit: HealthDay

Then Ferguson looked for links between the levels of violence in the movies and rates of certain homicides in the United States. He did find evidence that rates of onscreen violence and reported homicides rose together in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. However, "movie violence and societal violence actually went in opposite directions in the early 20th century, then again after 1993. So there's really no meaningful trend between movie and societal violence," he said.

In his other study, Ferguson looked for signs of links between violence in video games and real-life violence among American young people from 1996 to 2011. Violence in video games rose steadily, while it fell among young people in real life, he found.

Does that mean violent video games are actually making kids behave? It doesn't seem so, Ferguson said. He believes the two probably aren't connected.

However, research has shown that video games -- whether violent or not -- do reduce stress, he said. "Those studies generally haven't completed the circle by tying it back around to violence or aggression, although people are generally more aggressive when stressed," he added.

In the big picture, Ferguson said, concern about the supposed impact of violence on screen "can do real damage by distracting society from more pressing issues influencing violence, whether they're poverty, educational disparities or mental health reform."

James Anderson, director of the Center for Communication and Community at the University of Utah, said Ferguson's findings are "reasonable" and show that "the facts of reality do not support the facts generated in research" about violence.

What can parents do?

Anderson suggests that they teach kids that "acting out in violent behavior can lead to serious consequences. Such behavior should be discouraged, and triggers for such behavior should be identified and controlled."

These triggers "are not universal and have to be identified on a case-by-case basis," Anderson said. "They could be friends, participation in sports, Facebook and other social media" and, yes, even violence in the media, although he thinks that's unlikely.

"Age-appropriate rules, due diligence, important conversations about the unacceptability of violent behavior, and modeling the desired behavior are parents' best protection for their child," he said.

The study is published in the December issue of the Journal of Communication.

Ferguson said he has no financial ties to the movie, television or gaming industries, and that his studies did not receive any outside funding.

More information

Visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry for more on media violence.

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