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Youth Aggression and the Disarmament of American Entertainment

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In his press conference yesterday announcing gun-control proposals, President Obama listed several executive actions he would take to curb the kind of gun violence that led to the murder of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., last month. He also listed several proposals to Congress.

"If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try," he said.

One such step is a proposal that Congress provide $10 million in funding to the Centers for Disease Control in order to study the causes and prevention of gun violence, including an investigation into "the relationship between video games, media images, and violence."

"We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence," Obama said.

The National Rifle Association, among others, has sought to position violent media, rather than gun access, as a leading cause behind the Newtown attack.

But the CDC idea may have legs, because of what researchers already know for sure about media violence: Almost nothing. Indeed, the general theory of media violence goes like this: Consistent exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggression. But many studies conflict on the strength of that influence or how that aggression might be otherwise mitigated.

The research does not, however, show causality. Violent media doesn't lead to murder. Nor, however, is it necessarily without effect.

57 Channels (and Nothin' On But Violence)

A 2001 study by researchers at the University of Michigan is one of many that suggest youth viewing of TV violence contributes to aggression (PDF) in adult life, but in ways beyond the simple "child sees violence, child imitates violence." Rather, it's the rationale for violence that matters; violence perpetrated by a hero stimulates aggression more than the dastardly acts of a villain.

"[A] violent act by someone like 'Dirty Harry,' which results in a criminal being eliminated and brings glory to Harry, is of more concern than a bloodier murder by a despicable criminal who is brought to justice," the study concludes. (Dirty Harry is from film, of course, but we'll let that slide.)

Television violence doesn't just come in the form of crime shows and every episode of an HBO drama. One of television's biggest revenue generators is sports, with the Super Bowl being the annual crown jewel. (Go Patriots!) Yet a 1997 study published in The Sport Psychologist suggests that watching sports leads to increased aggression, while playing in sports may also lead to aggression, as athletes get spurred on by a rowdy crowd.

"Expectancies of reward (or punishment) for aggressive acts may be learned by previous reinforcement (or punishment) or by modeling/imitation of significant others such as coach, parents, [or] sports heroes," the study says.

And the most violent place of all? The evening news. Just imagine the past week: The French invasion of Mali. A bombing at a Syrian university that left 82 dead. An American drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia that has so far killed over 3,000 people. And the prolific coverage of the tragedy that catalyzed this round of gun-control dialogue in the first place.

Not Intended for All Audiences

The American Civil War, an interstellar civil war, and a charming musical represent the top ticket sellers in worldwide box office history. Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music are also in the American Film Institute's list of the Best 100 Films, and collectively made $4,065,669,200 at the box office, adjusted for inflation. None of them are violent, really, although the backdrops certainly are. (How many people died fighting the Union, or on the Death Star?)

Among the 10 highest-grossing films of all time (unadjusted), only Titanic and Toy Story 3 aren't action movies packed with fighting. (The iceberg didn't show much aggression, at least. Toy Story 3, though, features some toy torture.) All but Toy Story 3 are rated PG-13, mostly for action violence. It's scraping as close to gore as possible without really experiencing it, because the blood itself determines what is for "mature audiences only."

We don't necessarily flock to these movies because of the fights, but that's an intrinsic part of the experience. The blood in director Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, for example, might seem strong, but then, that's part of the beloved Tarantino brand; most all of his flicks are rated R and come saturated with violence. Short of that R rating, however, the children come, too. But afterwards, are there discussions of the fights? Is context explained? A child can buy a ticket to a PG-13 movie without her parents, but is that the only kind of action-movie experience that researchers worry about?

In a statement released after the White House published its proposals, the Motion Picture Association of America and other film organizations released a statement (PDF) saying they would "welcome academic examination and consideration on these issues as the president has proposed." Left unsaid is the likely relief at not facing imminent action.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Game No Evil

Video-game research differs from television and film research in the sense that video games aren't passive deliverers of entertainment. You don't just watch a character kill someone; you, as the character, kill that someone.

Some studies, like with television, note increased levels of aggression or antisocial behavior in students playing video games. Other studies? Nothing. A Washington Post analysis similarly finds little or no link between sales of video games and homicide. And Cheryl K. Olson, a public health researcher and co-author of Grand Theft Childhood, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that we know "virtually nothing ... about how youths who are already prone to violent behavior, such as those exposed to violence at home and in their neighborhoods, use these games."

Video games now have court protection against censorship, a key victory for the industry. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California did not have the authority to ban the sale of violent video games to minors, under the First Amendment.

Think that the Supreme Court ruling is bogus? Well, while video games might not have the cache of Van Gogh, they're increasingly seen as art. Both the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, and the American Museum of Art, in Washington, have featured exhibits on video games. If the Smithsonian hosting such an exhibit isn't explicit acknowledgement by the government that video games are art, then what is? (Call this the Miracle on 34th Street approach to law.)

Policy and Policing

Research context is important. After all, sitting in traffic leads to aggression, too, but if that directly led to violence, then the Washington Beltway, the Los Angeles Freeway, and most of Boston would be militarized zones by now. It might not be the content that drives aggression, so much as the emotion of the content: aggression drives aggression. Conversely, there aren't as many studies looking into whether watching happy, positive television similarly produced happy, less-aggressive children.

Hence the desire by the Obama administration to increase CDC funding, even in the face of a Congress that really, really hates spending. And the funding is only half the battle. In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a law that prohibited federal funding for any research that "advocates or promote[s] gun control." This effectively halted a great deal of gun research. The executive order signed yesterday says that researchers should proceed looking into "causes and prevention of gun violence," but, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this sets up two different directives and leaves confusion until Congress responds.

And say Congress does change its mind, and a slew of new research emerges; what does that mean for policy?

Currently, the entertainment industry is generally self-policing, especially in film and video games. The Entertaining Software Ratings Board oversees the video-game industry and assigns maturity ratings to products, in the same way the MPAA does for movies. The Federal Communications Commission rates television. Video-game executives note that stores are good about not selling mature games to under-aged youth. Movie theaters don't let anyone into R-rated movies if they're under 17. (And they mean it—my poor mother had to sit through The Matrix: Reloaded with me.) And for parents worried about movie content, sites like the Internet Movie Database have user-generated parent guides that detail what to expect at the cinema, in addition to the official MPAA descriptors.

The biggest access point for youth is television, and while ratings and parental controls can do a lot, experts say TV requires greater vigilance from parents. As Olson noted in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio, parental involvement can mitigate the effects of violent media.

As for schools, well ... addressing difficult topics in the classroom can sometimes lead to community objections. Teachers would likely need to be guaranteed latitude before diving into a lesson on Saving Private Ryan. But districts which implement violence-intervention programs (PDF) have met with some levels of success.

And largely unaddressed by the White House is yet another sector of the entertainment industry: The Internet. As more and more media goes online, would the government attempt to restrict the Web?

As Obama says: Even one step.

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