Is there a link between violence in the media and in real life?
To the Editor:
The National Rifle Association’s cynical exploitation of concerns about media violence to obfuscate the need for gun control trivializes a very real public health issue. Recent articles in The Times (“The Real World Forces Its Way Into the Gamers’ Universe,” Dec. 26; “Real and Virtual Firearms Nurture a Marketing Link,” Dec. 25) and elsewhere dismiss links between violent media and real-life violence, but the truth is far more complex.
Research repeatedly demonstrates that, for children, exposure to violent video games, movies and television programs is a risk factor for becoming desensitized to violence, lack of sympathy for victims and aggressive behavior. Proponents for allowing purveyors of violent media unfettered access to children dismiss the research because it is correlational and not causal.
But public health policy is often based on correlation between behavior and harm, and the correlation between media violence and aggression is almost as strong as the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer—and stronger than other acknowledged public health threats such as the links between not using a condom and sexually transmitted H.I.V., and early exposure to lead and lower I.Q. scores.
Regardless of the role violent media played or didn’t play in the tragic Newtown shootings, children are harmed by frequent exposure to movies, video games, music and TV programs that glorify violence. We shouldn’t let the National Rifle Association’s smoke and mirrors, or the urgent need for gun control and effective, readily available mental health services, distract from the problem of media violence.
We need to stop allowing children to be targets for marketing violent media, and to help parents understand its potential dangers and set limits on its consumption.
Boston, Jan. 21, 2013
The writer is director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of “Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.”
As one of the leading researchers on media violence, I am concerned that research data be correctly represented. There is a large pool of data on media violence and aggression, but the findings have been inconsistent and the studies tend to be deeply flawed.
Further, as media violence has become more prevalent, societal violence, including youth violence, has declined to 40-year lows. Societies that share or exceed our media culture in violence, ranging from Canada to the Netherlands to Japan, have far lower violence rates even if you factor out gun violence (because of gun control laws).
Our society has a tendency toward “confirmation bias,” noting media effects when perpetrators are young males and ignoring media effects when perpetrators don’t fit the stereotype. Together the evidence paints a picture pointing away from, not toward, media violence as a contributor to societal violence.
We know that after societal tragedies, it is common to blame media in a cycle of moral panic. We know that advocacy groups, though well intentioned, are often a part of those moral panics. So too, unfortunately, are some scholars.
But the evidence does not suggest that media violence contributes to a public health crisis—far from it. This is not only my conclusion, but the conclusion of recent independent reviews by the United States Supreme Court and government reviews by Australia and Sweden. I encourage readers to seek out the evidence themselves, read studies on both sides and make up their own minds.
CHRISTOPHER J. FERGUSON
Laredo, Tex., Jan. 23, 2013
The writer is an associate professor of psychology and communication at Texas A&M International University.
Ms. Linn is right to call out the National Rifle Association’s disingenuous concern about media violence. The N.R.A. knows that there is a symbiotic relationship between media makers and gun manufacturers.
The Times reported last May that using brand-name guns in movies drives sales. It began in 1971 when “Dirty Harry” made the .44 Magnum a household word—and made Smith & Wesson oodles of cash. The gun manufacturers make money twice: first when they license their weapon to appear in a video game or a movie, and again when the depiction drives sales.
Our devotion to the First Amendment makes any attempt to contain media violence very tricky. But this isn’t really about free speech; it’s about money. Movie and video-game producers create violent media—boosting the sale of real guns—because it makes them boatloads of money, in the United States and in foreign markets because violence doesn’t require nuanced translation.
That payday is hard to resist. But we can, and we should. Public health advocates have been pressuring movie producers to limit the portrayals of smoking to movies with R ratings because robust research has found that movies are the leading cause of smoking initiation among young people. As they say, smoking in movies kills in real life.
We should insist that movie and video-game producers do the same thing: protect children by keeping violence out of children’s media.
Director, Berkeley Media Studies Group
Berkeley, Calif., Jan. 23, 2013
As I read Ms. Linn’s letter, I was struck by how little she backed up her argument with concrete examples. She seems sure that violent media are being marketed to children, but what media exactly? When and how? I see a lot of media with violent elements, but it’s all marketed to adults, and teenagers where age-appropriate. If these are getting into the hands of young children, then that is a failure of parenting.
There is nothing intrinsically bad about violent media or any other form of media; they all have a time, a place and an appropriate audience. I have enjoyed many forms of media that include violence and subjects inappropriate for the very young.
I find gratuitous gore for its own sake in poor taste, but I would never consider restricting it legally. I simply vote with my dollars to promote what I consider better. We already have tools to prevent children from getting at things they shouldn’t: rating systems, TV channels for children, technological filters. The missing link in the chain is parents.
I do sympathize with the challenges that parents face in our interconnected world, but looking to restrict the media landscape is not the answer.
Richmond, Va., Jan. 23, 2013
Ms. Linn is absolutely right that parents should be the ones setting limits on what their children see, hear and play. Unfortunately, however, the same arguments she deploys in the rest of her letter present the traditional prelude to calls for actual government censorship.
Even if the scientific evidence on the issue were settled in the way she claims, which it is not, government restrictions on speech to limit what children see, hear or play will necessarily restrict far more speech than is necessary to address the perceived problem.
Censorship, especially in the name of protecting children, is never surgical. It will always limit the legitimate free speech rights of adults and, in this case, children. Consequently, it must be resisted.
Legislative Counsel/Policy Adviser
American Civil Liberties Union
Washington, Jan. 24, 2013
Ms. Linn’s impassioned argument against media violence—and against the National Rifle Association—is surely well intentioned, but several underlying assumptions weaken her case.
Ms. Linn does not differentiate between forms of representational violence. In the same way that an actual gunshot to the face is significantly different from a punch in the nose, media portrayals of violence are not homogeneous, nor are their influences alike.
She also states that children are the “targets for marketing violent media.” While this is undoubtedly true to some extent, her assertion does not account for the fact that children are more likely to be curious eavesdroppers, looking in on the representations of violence that are oriented toward older and arguably more mature audiences. Despite being relatively toothless, ratings systems across different media products are evidence of industry awareness that not all content is child-friendly.
Finally, despite their tender age, children regularly demonstrate sophisticated interpretive skills pertaining to media, violence, and social attitudes and behaviors. Determining whether or not they are desensitized to violence is important work, but the majority of children who are exposed to media violence do not act out or mimic what they see. Let’s try to learn a bit more from and about them before imposing restrictive policies.
Roxbury, Mass., Jan. 23, 2013
The writer is an associate professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University.
Violent art, whether in audio, video or print, is simply an expression of the existing society. In other words, blaming the art is like blaming the mirror.
Northborough, Mass., Jan. 23, 2013
Ms. Linn’s call to stop the marketing of violent media to children doesn’t go far enough.
There can be no argument that frequent exposure to movies and video games that glorify violence harms children. Researchers at the University of Indiana Medical School found that such exposure changes the brains of heavy users, making them less able to understand the effects of actual violence. And we know that the military has used computer simulations for many years to desensitize soldiers and turn them into effective killers.
Efforts to protect children from violent media have been thwarted by the courts, citing the First Amendment. We should take seriously the advice of John Howard, former prime minister of Australia, who described in a Jan. 17 Op-Ed column how his country effectively responded to a horrific mass murder. “Australia,” he wrote, “correctly in my view, does not have a Bill of Rights, so our legislatures have more say than America’s over many issues of individual rights, and our courts have less control.”
We needn’t scrap our Bill of Rights. But we must consider how to stop the courts from giving constitutional protection to the marketers of extreme and realistic violent images that would have sickened the authors of the First Amendment.
Wellfleet, Mass., Jan. 24, 2013
The writer is a former editor of the Harvard Education Letter and a founding partner of the U.S. Alliance for Childhood.
While I am no fan of gun control, I am inclined to support Ms. Linn’s premise that the deluge of virtual violence to which our children are constantly exposed cannot be good for them. As a child in the 1950s I was exposed to on-screen violence, in westerns and films about World War II, but they always seemed to carry a moral message of consequences. We had our toy six-shooters and role-playing games, but there were always rules and consequences.
There is no question that virtual training using digital simulators works well for the military and others. Digital simulators are really just very expensive video games. As in the computer games, if one crashes, the simulation is just reset and the student flies on, or, at worst, restarts the flight. Why would we expect the violent computer games to be any less effective at training the minds of our most impressionable to engage in violence while ignoring all personal and social consequences?
While children with a broad spectrum of activities and good adult role models and guidance may handle these games without visible damage, it is not clear that those lacking guidance or suitable role models fare as well.
TOM BALLOU Jr.
Corpus Christi, Tex., Jan. 23, 2013
The writer is a retired Navy captain.
Ms. Linn argues that we must acknowledge the correlation between exposure to media violence and violent behavior. At Common Sense Media, we fully agree, and think that industry leaders must also acknowledge that violent movies and video games are being marketed to children from a very young age, and take steps to advertise more responsibly.
The new normal in this country plays out every weekend: Parents take their children to a movie theater, or gather to watch a football game, and are almost immediately bombarded with trailers or commercials for films and video games rated for mature audiences. At Common Sense, we talk to parents every day who face this challenge.
In a recent poll we commissioned with the Center for American Progress, 77 percent of parents believed that media violence, such as content in TV, movies, and video games, contributes to America’s culture of violence.
The entertainment industry should behave responsibly when it comes to marketing violent movies and video games. That’s why we’ve asked the leaders of the major networks, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association to exercise restraint and responsibility in considering the advertisements they feature in their broadcasts. We also believe that the Motion Picture Association of America has a responsibility to ensure that movie trailers shown before films are of an equal or lesser rating than the films they precede.
We don’t want to see media used as a scapegoat while ignoring the need for real action on access to guns and mental health. The solution to the problem of violence in our world is not an issue of either/or. The only way to ensure that our children grow up in a world that’s safe and filled with opportunity is to look at all the factors involved in our culture of violence. And in that mix, the marketing of violent content cannot be ignored.
JAMES P. STEYER
San Francisco, Jan. 24, 2013
The writer is chief executive and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the media and technology lives of children and families.
Ms. Linn is right. Children are constantly targeted by predatory companies that seek to exploit their innocence, as they’re not old enough to wisely respond to what they’re being sold. Marketing to children is unethical, and especially so with the marketing of violent media. Children deserve protection from the bully culture that can poison their minds and spirit.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Jan. 23, 2013
The writer is the singer and founder of the Center for Child Honoring.
The Writer Responds
There’s no question that violent media are heavily marketed to children. I direct Mr. Skreslet to several Federal Trade Commission investigations detailing how extensively kids are targeted—including through media-linked toy and food promotions and advertising on children’s television channels.
The rating systems he describes as adequate protection provide confusing and misleading information to parents. Research shows that movies that once would have been rated R for violence are now rated PG-13.
As for Mr. Ferguson’s critique: After reviewing over 1,000 studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and other major public health organizations found that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for aggression, lack of sympathy for victims and desensitization to violence. The evidence continues to mount, including a meta-analysis of research on video-game violence by researchers from the United States and Japan that showed similar findings across cultures.
Identifying children’s exposure to media violence as a public health problem and one of many factors contributing to societal violence doesn’t constitute a “moral panic.” It’s a common-sense response to powerful industries profiting from teaching kids that violence is a normal, even desirable, response to conflict.
As Mr. Rottman suggests, it’s crucial that media companies be free from government censorship and able to create any content they please. But they shouldn’t have the right to bypass parents and advertise violent media directly to children.
Boston, Jan. 25, 2013
Note from KBJ: Susan Linn is vile. If she would take the time to read the transcript of the NRA's news conference, she would realize that the NRA is calling for precisely what she is calling for, namely, limits on what children are allowed to see in Hollywood films, video games, and television programs.