The American Academy of Pediatrics last month issued a new policy statement on “virtual violence” in TV, movies, and video games. Despite the absence of any clear link between violent media and real-world aggressive behavior in young people, the professional organization made some alarming recommendations — including that the federal government should create a comprehensive and blatantly unconstitutional “‘parent-centric’ rating system rather than relying on industry to do so.”
The debate over violent media — particularly video games — and its purported relation to violent behavior has been rehashed numerous times. As Stetson University psychology professor Christopher J. Ferguson pointed out in a critique at Huffington Post, the new AAP statement continues a tradition of cherry-picking research, ignoring reputable scholars who disagree, and dismissing the First Amendment as if it’s nothing more than a speed bump.
The AAP alludes to “hundreds” of studies that found a link between media violence and increased aggression in youth. But as Ferguson outlines, the policy statement simply ignores research that showed the opposite or was inconclusive:
This claim is easily contradicted by a whole host of studies that find no effect for media violence on aggression. Other studies have examined links between media violence consumption and societal violence and found that media violence is, if anything, associated with reduced societal violence. This is not to say evidence is consistent against effects either. Some studies do find some evidence for media effects (although typically small and usually for minor behaviors) yet others do not. Claiming consistency in either directly merely discredits the claimant as a credible source of information.
The AAP statement does acknowledge the 2011 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. EMA, which struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors (and cited a CBLDF amicus brief about the attacks on comics in the 1950s in the decision), but claims that the decision was not based on “scientific merit,” but on “first-amendment protection for the games” — apparently not a major concern for the AAP. In any case, says Ferguson, that line of argument is faulty since “SCOTUS specifically decided that the evidence was insufficient to support the claim that violent games ‘harmed’ children.”
To be sure, some of the AAP’s recommendations for action that round out the policy statement are perfectly sound — for instance, parents should be aware of what media their children are consuming, and in the case of very young children should preferably “coplay games with their children so as to have a better sense of what the games entail.” But some of the recommendations are quite a bit more drastic and exhibit a blithe disregard for the value of a well-rounded entertainment industry, particularly where video games are concerned. Take this blanket statement, for instance:
Video games should not use human or other living targets or award points for killing, because this teaches children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.
Despite the fact that approximately 73% of gamers in the U.S. are over 18, the AAP seems to be advocating here that all video games should be made appropriate for minors according to its standards. At the same time, though, the organization also urges the federal government to “oversee the development of a robust, valid, reliable, and ‘parent-centric’ rating system rather than relying on industry to do so.” That recommendation seemingly refers not just to video games, but to movies and television as well.
The expectation that the federal government would or could replace the familiar ratings systems for three entertainment industries with one of its own making, or that video game developers could be convinced to decimate popular franchises from Call of Duty to Halo, puts the AAP recommendations firmly in the realm of fantasy. Ferguson reaches the same conclusion in his critique at Huffington Post:
Ultimately, this policy statement misinforms rather than informs. It further cements the AAP’s reputation as society’s neurotic nanny on the topic of media (a role with which it often competes with the APA.) It is a statement of rigid ideology, not science and, as such, should be regarded as an amusing curiosity, not a platform for good policy or parenting practices.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.