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No Easy Answers on Media Violence's Effect on Kids

David Becker/Getty Images File Photo
Marc Schroeder plays “Gears of War 3” at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Some lawmakers have been quick to blame video games such as the “Grand Theft Auto” and “Gears of War” franchises for glorifying violence.

“There has been an assertion made ... that our culture is more violent, that there is more violence in our daily lives. And that just simply is not true,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington think tank NDN, which has accepted funding from the video game industry.

“What we know is that during a time of exploding media exposure, we’ve seen a precipitous decline in violent crime,” Rosenberg said, adding that “it’s very hard to draw any statistical correlation” between exposure to violent media and violent behavior.

Taken as a whole, the only consensus among researchers on the long-term effect of violent media on children appears to be that there is no consensus. Even supporters of limits on violent content admit as much.

Still, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has argued for years that exposure to violent media negatively affects young people. He pushed for legislation seven years ago that would have limited violence on broadcast and cable television, but with little success. Subsequent court decisions have made such legislation an even more difficult prospect in the interim.

Rockefeller recently reintroduced a bill that would direct the National Academy of Sciences to take a fresh look at the research in the field, in hopes of finding a more conclusive link between exposure to violent media and violence. He unsuccessfully sought unanimous consent to pass the bill at the end of the last Congress and is waiting for the right moment to attempt another consent request. His staff also hasn’t ruled out moving the bill through committee in regular order.

Supporters of the legislation acknowledge that, even if it passes, it would be just the first step toward enacting limits on violent content. Only definitive evidence linking exposure to violent images and actual violence is likely to sway the Supreme Court, which last weighed in on the issue in 2011.

The broadcast and cable industries have teamed up to promote the tools they offer to help parents screen out violent and sexually explicit content, including the TV and movie ratings systems and the v-chip. The video game industry has not joined that campaign, choosing to tout its own options for parental control. Rockefeller dismisses those attempts at self-regulation.

“I have never believed that voluntary parental controls are sufficient or effective in protecting our children from exposure to violent content,” Rockefeller told CQ Roll Call in an email. “The entertainment industry needs to face the real problem, which is often the unconscionable levels of violence and explicit content in the products they sell.”

Rosenberg pointed out that playing video games has become common behavior for children, unaccompanied by any resulting spike in later violence. Rockefeller’s Republican counterpart on the Commerce Committee is also less convinced about the dangers of media violence.

“Like many parents, of course I am concerned about the types of media children are exposed to,” said ranking member John Thune, R-S.D. “But we have to be careful about drawing conclusions prematurely in response to horrible tragedies. There are many factors that lead to real-world violence, including mental-health issues, and we should look at this important societal issue in a holistic fashion.”

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