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CHILDREN, VIOLENCE, AND THE MEDIA
A Report for Parents and Policy Makers
Committee on the Judiciary
Americans have grown increasingly alarmed about youth violence. Far too many of our children are killing and harming others. This report identifies and begins to redress one of the principal causes of youth violence: media violence.
The Problem: Youth Violence
According to the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"), law enforcement agencies arrested approximately 2.8 million juveniles in 1997. Of that number, 2,500 were arrested for murder and 121,000 for other violent crimes. Juveniles accounted for 19% of all arrests, 14% of murder arrests, and 17% of all violent crime arrests.
According to DOJ, the number of juvenile violent crime arrests in 1997 exceeded the 1988 level by 49%.
According to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.9% of high school students carried a gun in the 30 days prior to the survey. Eighteen percent of high school students now carry a knife, razor, firearm, or other weapon on a regular basis, and 9% of them take a weapon to school.
A Principal Cause: Media Violence
The Committee report reviewed existing studies and found:
Responsive, Responsible Steps for National Reform
The Report makes several recommendations for national reform aimed at curbing the effects of violent media on children, including measures that would:
Practical Guidance for Parental Empowerment
The report describes in detail the commonly used ratings systems for television, motion pictures, music, video games, and the Internet.
The report provides information about filtering and monitoring technology available for use with personal computers and the Internet.
The report details helpful suggestions from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other experts about limiting the impact of violent television and other media on children.
Americans have felt a growing and nagging uneasiness over the past several years. Yes, we have come to enjoy unparalleled material prosperity, personal freedom, and opportunity. And, yes, we live longer, healthier lives. Yet, for all these achievements, we also sense that our nation suffers from an insidious decay. Americans would hardly be surprised to learn that we lead the industrialized world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile crime, imprisonment, divorce, single-parent households, numbers of teen suicide, cocaine consumption, per capita consumption of all drugs, and pornography production.
The horrifying spate of school shootings during the past two years has transformed that uneasiness into an almost desperate alarm. Behind the facade of our material comfort, we find a national tragedy: America's children are killing and harming each other. As Colorado Governor Bill Owens lamented in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, a "virus" is loose within our culture, and that virus is attacking America's youth, our nation's most vulnerable and precious treasure.
The statistics are chilling. In 1997, law enforcement agencies in the United States arrested an estimated 2.8 millions persons under age 18.1 Of that number, an estimated 2,500 juveniles were arrested for murder and 121,000 for other violent crimes2 According to the FBI, juveniles accounted for 19% of all arrests, 14% of all murder arrests, and 17% of all violent crime arrests in 1997.3
While the number of arrests of juveniles for violent crimes declined slightly from 1996 to 1997, the number of juvenile violent crime arrests in 1997 was still 49% above the 1988 level. 4
James Q. Wilson, one of our foremost experts on crime, has observed, "Youngsters are shooting at people at a far higher rate than at any time in recent history."5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") reports that a recent survey showed that some 5.9% of the American high school students surveyed said that they had carried a gun in the 30 days prior to the survey6 . Equally troubling, that survey also shows that 18% of high school students now carry a knife, razor, firearm, or other weapon on a regular basis, and 9% of them take a weapon to school7. While recent studies show that the amount of youth violence has started to decline, the CDC warns that "the prevalence of youth violence and school violence is still unacceptably high."8
As a result of demographic trends, the problem of juvenile violence could dramatically worsen as the number of American teenagers will increase significantly over the next decade. According to Department of Justice estimates, the number of juveniles who will be arrested for violent crimes will double by the year 2010.
Fortunately, our nation's growing alarm carries with it a collective will for finding a solution. Americans know that something is wrong, and they are united in their desire to address the problem of youth violence. Americans also realize that a variety of factors underlie this national tragedy, including disintegrating nuclear families, child abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, a lack of constructive values, a revolving-door juvenile justice system, and pervasive media violence. Only a comprehensive approach that targets all of these factors has any hope of success, and Americans look to their elected leaders not for demagoguery or partisanship, but for effective legislation and empowering public policies.
Those who would focus solely on the instrumentalities children use to cause harm surely are mistaken. After all, there are unlimited ways that a child bent on violence can harm another person. Thus, limiting the access of troubled children to firearms and other weapons is but one aspect of a comprehensive approach. The remainder of that approach must address this question: Why does a child turn to violence?
A growing body of research concludes that media violence constitutes one significant part of the answer. With respect to television violence alone, a 1993 report by University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon S. Centerwall expresses a startling finding: "[If], hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Violent crime would be half what it is."9 Plainly, any solution to the juvenile violence problem that fails to address media violence is doomed to failure.
American media are exceedingly violent. With television, analysis of programming for 20 years (1973 to 1993) found that over the years, the level of violence in prime-time programming remained at about 5 violent acts per hour.10 An August 1994 report by the Center for Media and Public Affairs reported that in one 18-hour day in 1992, observing 10 channels of all major kinds of programs, 1,846 different scenes of violence were noted, which translated to more than 10 violent scenes per hour, per channel, all day. A follow-up study conducted in 1994, found a 41% increase in violent scenes to 2,605, which translated to almost 15 scenes of violence per hour.11 Like television, our cinemas are full of movies that glamorize bloodshed and violence, and one need only listen to popular music radio and stroll down the aisle of almost any computer store to see that our music and video games are similarly afflicted.
Not only are our media exceedingly violent; they are also ubiquitous. The percentage of households with more than one television set has reached an all-time high of 87%, and roughly ½ of American children have a television set in their room.12 Forty-six percent of all homes with children have access to at least one television set, a VCR, home video game equipment and a personal computer, and 88.7% of such homes have either home video game equipment, a personal computer, or both.13
What does that mean for our children? Most children now have unprecedented technological avenues for accessing the "entertainment" our media industries provide. The average 7th grader watches about 4 hours of television per day, and 60% of those shows contain some violence. The average 7th grader plays electronic games at least 4 hours per week, and 50% of those games are violent.14 According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18 an American child will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.15
The Littleton, Colorado school massacre has spawned a national debate over how to respond to this culture of media violence. In May 1999, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans believe that TV and movies are partly to blame for juvenile crime. A TIME/CNN poll found that 75% of teens 13 to 17 years of age believe the Internet is partly responsible for crimes like the Littleton shootings, 66% blame violence in movies, television, and music, and 56% blame video game violence.
In response, many, including the President, have called for studies to determine what effect that culture has on our children. Yet, we should not use such studies to dodge our responsibility to the American people. At least with respect to television and movies, existing research already demonstrates a solid link between media violence and the violent actions of our youth. Dr. Leonard D. Eron, a senior research scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has estimated that television alone is responsible for 10% of youth violence.16 "The debate is over," begins a position paper on media violence by the American Psychiatric Association, "[f]or the last three decades, the one predominant finding in research on the mass media is that exposure to media portrayals of violence increases aggressive behavior in children."17 In the words of Jeffrey McIntyre, legislative and federal affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, "To argue against it is like arguing against gravity." 18
A. Television and Film Violence
It has been estimated that more than 1,000 studies on the effects of television and film violence have been done during the past 40 years.19 In the last decade the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Institute of Mental Health have separately reviewed many of these studies. Each of these reviews has reached the same conclusion: television violence leads to real-world violence.20 The National Institute of Mental Health reported that "television violence is as strongly correlated with aggressive behavior as any variable that has been measured." A comprehensive study conducted by the Surgeon General's Office in 1972, and updated in 1982, found television violence a contributing factor to increases in violent crime and antisocial behavior; a 1984 United States Attorney General's Task Force study on family violence revealed that viewing television violence contributed to acting-out violence in the home;21 and recently, the National Television Violence Study, a 3-year project that examined the depiction of violent behavior across more than 8,200 programs, concluded that televised violence teaches aggressive attitudes and behaviors, desensitization to violence, and increased fear of becoming victimized by violence.22 The majority of the existing social and behavioral science studies, taken together, agree on the following basic points: (1) constant viewing of televised violence has negative effects on human character and attitudes; (2) television violence encourages violent forms of behavior and influences moral and social values about violence in daily life; (3) children who watch significant amounts of television violence have a greater likelihood of exhibiting later aggressive behavior; (4) television violence affects viewers of all ages, intellect, socioeconomic levels, and both genders; and (5) viewers who watch significant amounts of television violence perceive a meaner world and overestimate the possibility of being a victim of violence.23
The research has also shown that television violence can harm even young children. Researchers have performed longitudinal studies of the impact of television violence on young children as they mature into adults. One such study, begun in 1960, examined 600 people at age 8, age 18, and age 30. The researchers concluded that boys at age 8 who had been watching more television violence than other boys grew up to be more aggressive than other boys, and they also grew up to be more aggressive and violent than one would have expected them to be on the basis of how aggressive they were as 8-year-olds.24 A second similar study, which included girls, arrived at a similar conclusion: children who watched more violence behaved more aggressively the next year than those who watched less violence on television, and more aggressively than anticipated based on their behavior the previous year.25 Professor L. Rowell Huesmann, one of the researchers behind these studies, summarized his findings before a Senate committee earlier this year:
Some experts also believe that children can become addicted to violence. "Violence is like the nicotine in cigarettes," states Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Green Beret and West Point psychology professor who now heads the Killology Research Group. "The reason why the media has to pump ever more violence into us is because we've built up a tolerance. In order to get the same high, we need ever-higher levels. . . . The television industry has gained its market share through an addictive and toxic ingredient." 27
Not surprisingly, many have come to view television and film violence as a national public health problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, recently published a report advocating a national media education program to mitigate the negative impact of the harmful media messages seen and heard by children and adolescents.28 Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., has framed the issue in language we can all understand: "If you're worried about what your kid eats, you should worry about what your kid's watching."29
B. Other Media Violence
Less research has been done on the effect of music, video games, and the Internet on children. Nonetheless, on the basis of both that research and the research findings concerning television and film, experts confidently predict that violent music, video games, and Internet material also will be found to have harmful effects on children.
Few would doubt the overall effect music has on people. In Plato's Republic, Socrates said that "musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten." Music affects our moods, our attitudes, our emotions, and our behavior; we wake to it, dance to it, and sometimes cry to it. From infancy it is an integral part of our lives.
As virtually any parent with a teenager can attest, music holds an even more special place in the hearts and minds of our young people. Academic studies confirm this wisdom. One survey of 2,760 14-to-16-year-olds in 10 different cities found that they listened to music an average of 40 hours per week.30 Research has also shown that the average teenager listens to 10,500 hours of rock music during the years between the 7th and 12th grades.31
Inadequate attention has been paid to the effect on children of violent music lyrics. Although no studies have documented a cause-and-effect relationship between violent lyrics and aggressive behavior, studies do indicate that a preference for heavy metal music may be a significant marker for alienation, substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, suicide risk, sex-role stereotyping, or risk-taking behaviors during adolescence.32 In addition, a Swedish study has found that adolescents who developed an early interest in rock music were more likely to be influenced by their peers and less influenced by their parents than older adolescents.33
With good reason, then, parents are concerned about the music lyrics their children hear. And parents should be concerned. Despite historic, bipartisan remedial legislation by the state and federal governments, it is stunning even to the casual listener how much modern music glorifies acts of violence. Studies show that modern music lyrics have become increasingly explicit, particularly concerning sex, drugs, and, most troubling, violence against women.34 For example, the rock band Nine Inch Nails released a song titled "Big Man with a Gun," which triumphantly describes a sexual assault at gun point. Such hatred and violence against women are widespread and unmistakable in mainstream hip-hop and alternative music. Consider the singer "Marilyn Manson," whose less vulgar lyrics include: "Who says date rape isn't kind?"; "Let's just kill everyone and let your god sort them out"; and "The housewife I will beat, the pro-life I will kill." Other Manson lyrics cannot be repeated here. Or consider "Eminem," the hip-hop artist featured frequently on MTV, who recently wrote "Bonnie and Clyde," a song in which he described killing his child's mother and dumping her body in the ocean.
One should hope that the music industry would, at the very least, ostracize such material. Regrettably, however, the industry has chosen to embrace it. How else would the industry explain a 1998 Grammy nomination for Nine Inch Nails? A 1999 Grammy nomination for Marilyn Manson? MTV's "Best New Artist" award to Marilyn Manson last year and Eminem this year? Or the fact that, despite growing concern about such music, Eminem and Nine Inch Nails performed just last week at MTV's Video Music Awards show, televised across the country during prime time? It would be inconsistent with our First Amendment freedoms for government to prohibit such music. But surely it is not too much to ask that the music industry refrain from rewarding and celebrating these purveyors of filth and violence.
We must not ignore the fact that these violent, misogynist images may ultimately affect the behavior and attitudes of many young men toward women. Writing about such lyrics in 1996, William J. Bennett, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and C. DeLores Tucker posed the following question: "What would you do if you discovered that someone was encouraging your sons to kill people indiscriminately, to find fun in beating and raping girls, and to use the word 'motherf-er' at least once in every sentence?"35 While the authors directed that question specifically to parents, it is best addressed to all Americans.
and the Internet
The video games of choice for our youth are those that contain depictions of violence. A 1993 study, for instance, asked 357 seventh- and eighth-graders to select their preferences among five categories of video games. Thirty-two percent of the children selected the category "fantasy violence," and 17% selected "human violence." Only 2% of the children chose "educational games."39
Parents are concerned that the fantasy violence in video games could lead their children to real-world violence. That concern intensified when Americans learned that the two juveniles responsible for the Littleton massacre had obsessively played the ultra-violent video game "Doom." Americans also recalled that the 14-year-old boy who shot eight classmates in Paducah, Kentucky in 1997, had been an avid player of video games. As the New York Times observed, "the search for the cause in the Littleton shootings continues, and much of it has come to focus on violent video games."40
Here, too, the concern of parents is justified. Studies indicate that violent video games have an effect on children similar to that of violent television and film. That is, prolonged exposure of children to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggression.41 Some authorities go even further, concluding that the violent actions performed in playing video games are even more conducive to aggressive behavior. According to this view, the more often children practice fantasy acts of violence, the more likely they are to carry out real-world violent acts.42 As Professor Brian Stonehill, creator of the media studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, California, states: "The technology is going from passive to active. The violence is no longer vicarious with interactive media. It's much more pernicious and worrisome." Another researcher characterizes such games as sophisticated simulators, similar to those used in military training.43
Equally troubling, video games often present violence in a glamorized light. Typical games cast players in the role of a shooter, with points scored for each "kill." Furthermore, advertising for such games often touts the violent conduct as a selling point--the more graphic and extreme, the better. For example, the advertisement for the game "Destrega" reads: "Let the slaughter begin"; and for the game "Subspace," "Meet people from all over the world, then kill them." As the popularity and graphic nature of such games increase, so does the harm to our youth. As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman bluntly warns, "We're not just teaching kids to kill. We're teaching them to like it."44
C. Marketing of Media Violence
Given the evidence that violent materials in television, films, music, video games, and the Internet have harmful effects, we must be concerned about how, and to what extent, these materials are marketed, sold, and otherwise made available to children. The evidence is not encouraging.
Any frequent visitor to a movie theater could confirm that theater personnel are less than diligent in preventing juveniles from viewing R-rated movies. And for many of these films, such as "teen-slasher" hits "Scream," "Disturbing Behavior," and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," America's youth are in fact the target audience.
The story is maddeningly similar for video games, the Internet, and music. The National Institute on Media and Family found that, despite the rating system in place for video games, in 1998, only 21% of retail and rental stores had any policies prohibiting the sale or rental of adult games to minors. Earlier this year the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony about a 12-year-old boy who bought the video games "Doom" and "Quake"--both of which are rated for adults only--at a Washington, D.C. video store at the recommendation of the store clerk.45 The National Institute on Media and the Family also found that some manufacturers of video games are marketing to children ultra-violent products rated only for adults. One such video game, "Resident Evil 2," was advertised in the magazine "Sports Illustrated for Kids."
As for the Internet, there are thousands of websites celebrating hate, racism, extremism, and violence (not to mention misogyny, drug manufacturing and use, and pornography). One such site is operated by the notorious World Church of the Creator, which claims to be "established for the survival, expansion and advancement of our white race exclusively," and is engaged in a struggle against the "Jewish occupational Government of the United States."46 In the past several months several hate crimes (including multiple) murders have been linked to adherents of this "church." Some websites also offer versions of popular video games illegally altered to promote racism and violence. For example, the game "White Power Doom," adapted from the game "Doom," promotes a neo-Nazi agenda; another such game, "White Power Wolfenstein," is replete with Nazi symbols and imagery of the Holocaust. Without filtering/blocking technology and a rating system, such websites can be explored by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet, including children. As discussed in detail below, the Entertainment Software Rating Board ("ESRB") has developed a promising voluntary rating system for Internet material, for which they should be commended. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the system has been undermined by the unwillingness of web site operators to submit information about their sites to the ESRB.
Finally, with respect to music, the labeling program is voluntary, and many retailers simply choose not to restrict purchasing by minors. It was hardly surprising, then, when the Senate Commerce Committee heard how the same 12-year-old who purchased adult-only video games bought a Marilyn Manson compact disc from a Washington, D.C. record store. Ironically, the warning label on the disc was covered by the price tag.
RESPONSIBLE, RESPONSIVE STEPS FOR NATIONAL REFORM
Former United States Senator Paul Simon observed several years ago that "Thirty seconds of a soap bar commercial sells soap. Twenty-five minutes worth of glorification of violence sell violence." Hence, having fed our children death and horror as entertainment, we should not be surprised by the outcome. But we are not powerless to address the problem. Americans need to respond to the problem of media violence in a responsible manner. If we take steps at both the national level-by dealing with the marketing of, and access to, violent media-and at the most local of levels-by empowering parents to exercise greater control over the material their children access-we can significantly reduce the impact of violent media on our young people.
With respect to national reform, the Senate recently adopted the "Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999" (the "Juvenile Justice Act"). This legislation, summarized below, adopts a comprehensive approach which confronts youth violence on several fronts, including media violence.
A. The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999
The Juvenile Justice Act implements a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the problem of juvenile violence. The legislation devotes substantial resources to state and local governments for the continued development and implementation of innovative and effective accountability and prevention programs. The legislation also targets the growing national problem of criminal street gangs, which frequently lure juveniles into illicit activity, and it works to keep firearms and explosives out of the hands of children.
Equally important, the act begins to confront what experts consider a principal cause of juvenile violence: depictions of violence in the media. The relevant provisions, summarized below, seek to reduce children's exposure to media violence by encouraging corporate responsibility and empowering parents.
In the spirit of limited self-government, we believe that corporate responsibility is best spurred through moral suasion, not government compulsion. This approach, reflected in the Juvenile Justice Act, has the added advantage of emphatically respecting our First Amendment traditions. We do not seek to regulate content; we aim instead to facilitate the free expression of corporate responsibility and simple decency.
Promising signs abound that at least some media figures welcome this challenge. Earlier this year Gary Ross, writer and director of movies such as "Pleasantville," "Dave," and "Big," promised that "on each screenplay, I will ask myself what the ramifications are to the culture in which I live and the children who may see these films." "Star Wars" creator George Lucas warned that "films that are extremely violent in a context that violence is fun, hurting other people is fun, is a very negative thing. People in the film industry . . . should take personal responsibility for what they're saying and what they're doing." In the Internet industry, Steve Case, chairman of America Online, has agreed to take steps to limit the access of children to violent video games on the Internet. And from the music business, BMG President and CEO Strauss Zelnick's views stand as the model we urge others to emulate: "There is no question that the First Amendment would allow us to do whatever we want, but I believe we are all editors, and editors have a social responsibility and responsibility to themselves to decide what they want to publish. . . . There's clearly a line that we won't cross."
Industry Ratings Enforcement
The legislation provides for the voluntary cooperation of the entertainment industries to develop, implement, and enforce voluntary programming guidelines to remove harmful influences on children. The legislation provides a limited exemption from antitrust laws that enables the relevant industries to conduct joint discussions and enter into agreements to develop voluntary guidelines and ensure retail compliance with existing ratings and labeling systems.
Media Campaign Against Youth Violence
The bill provides for a 2-year national media campaign against youth violence. This campaign, for which the Senate has authorized $25 million, will be developed in consultation with national, statewide, and community-based youth organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
to Federal Property for Production of Violent Media
Through Internet Screening
of Health Study
Commission/Attorney General Joint Study
B. Proposals for Further Action
While the Juvenile Justice Act represents a promising start, much more needs to be done to reduce media violence. Further steps should be animated by the two imperatives that underlie the Juvenile Justice Act: encouraging corporate responsibility and empowering parents. Many media executives appear sincere in expressing their concerns about media violence. Thus, absent signs that this optimistic view of the industry is mistaken, policy proposals should facilitate, rather than compel, the exercise of corporate responsibility. As for parents, it bears repeating that they remain our most promising allies in this effort. Public policy initiatives therefore must empower them to fulfill their protective responsibilities.
Campaign to Educate Parents
Congress should direct and implement a national media campaign, similar to those used for drugs, smoking, and drunk driving prevention, to educate parents about the tools at their disposal. This campaign, which would be administered by the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,49 would make use of all forms of media. We urge the media industries to join the Department of Justice in developing and implementing this campaign.
Clearinghouse on Children and Entertainment Violence 50
of a Uniform Rating System
Efforts of Media Industries
While some segments of the entertainment industry are making needed reforms, monitoring is warranted. In the words of President Reagan, "trust but verify." Thus, the Federal Trade Commission should prepare a biannual "report card" detailing the prevalence of violence in the media, as well as the efforts undertaken by the entertainment industry to reduce it.
of Music Lyrics
Use of Government
Parental Empowerment and Guidance
While government can play an important role in ending youth violence, we agree with the wisdom expressed by Representative Henry Hyde, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: "Parents ultimately bear the responsibility for the environment in which their children are raised. We can pass laws to keep this garbage out of the hands of kids, but parents have to guide their children away from the polluting environment the greedy purveyors of violence are eager to sell." Yet, as noted above, too many parents lack the necessary information to guide their children away from violent media.
This final chapter provides parents information concerning the existing ratings systems for motion pictures, television, music, video games, and the Internet. In addition, the chapter provides some practical guidance for parents seeking to limit exposure to violent programming and reduce the effect of such programming on their children.
A. Commonly Used Rating Systems
The rating systems used by the various media industries are designed, in part, to empower parents, teachers, and other adults to shield children from media violence. As described above, a national, uniform rating system would prove more useful to parents, and such a system, it is believed, will eventually be implemented. In the meantime, the effectiveness of existing systems is undermined to the extent parents do not know about or understand them.51 To help remedy that problem, summaries of the current media rating systems are set forth below.
Films receive one of the following five rating symbols from the Rating Board of the Motion Picture Association of America ("MPAA"):
(1) "G": General
Audiences--All Ages Admitted.
(2) "PG": Parental
Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children.
(3) "PG-13": Parents
(4) "R": Restricted,
Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian.
(5) "NC-17": No
one 17 And Under Admitted.
The television industry has developed a voluntary rating system comprising six age-based labels and four content-based labels. The system categorizes programs on the basis of age and/or maturity, sexual situations, violence, language, and dialogue. The labels, which are designed for use with new technology commonly called the "V-chip," are displayed for 15 seconds on television screens at the beginning of rated programming.
The aged-based labels, which are modeled after the MPAA rating system for films, are as follows:
The content-based ratings, which provide additional information about possibly objectionable material, are as follows:
The content ratings "V," "S," "L," and "D" are used with adult programming, that is, with the age-based ratings of "TV-PG," "TV-14," and "TV-MA."
Parents should note that one major broadcaster, NBC, refuses to use the content-based ratings, believing that they constitute unacceptable government censorship. For a similar reason, one major cable network, Black Entertainment Television ("BET"), does not use any part of the television rating system.
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Congress required that all new television sets with 13" inch or larger picture screens contain a feature that would enable viewers to block the display of unwanted television programming.52 This technology, commonly called the "V-Chip," is a computer chip that can detect program ratings information that is transmitted with the television signal. The V-Chip works with the television rating systems by reading information encoded in the television program and blocking content based on either the age-based labels, the content-based labels, or a combination of the two, as determined by parents.53
Rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission require that television manufacturers must include V-Chip technology in at least half of their product models with a 13" or larger screens by July 1, 1999, and the other half by January 1, 2000. In June 1999, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association reported that all of the major television manufacturers had installed V-Chips in at least half of their new sets. These manufacturers, which include Hitachi, JVC, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Philips, Sanyo, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, Thomson, and Zenith, represent approximately 90% of all sets sold in the United States.54 Nonetheless, when purchasing a new television set, parents should confirm that the set has V-Chip technology.
The Recording Industry Association of America ("RIAA") has developed a rating program that alerts parents to music containing coarse language or expressions of violence, sex, or substance abuse. Under this program, record companies voluntarily identify recordings that contain such material and affix a "Parental Advisory" label to the packaging of the recording. While this rating program represents a much-needed first step, more must be done to help parents screen harmful music lyrics. As noted above, a uniform rating system should be implemented, and in the interim, the RIAA should adopt content-based ratings similar to those used with other media. In addition, lyrics should be made available to parents upon request. Video Games The leading rating system for video games is that developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board ("ESRB"), an entity established in 1994 by the Interactive Digital Software Association, the leading trade association for the interactive entertainment software industry.55 Created by Dr. Arthur Pober, an educational psychologist and former head of the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureau, this voluntary rating system was developed to provide parents and consumers credible information about the content of video and computer games. As of January 1998, the ESRB had rated more than 5,000 titles. The system covers software for all types of platforms, including personal computers, CD-ROM, and video game cartridge consoles.
The ESRB rating system uses 5 age-based categories supplemented with short phrases called "descriptors," which further explain the content of games. The age-based labels, which can be found on the front of the software package, are as follows:
Parents may find some games with the label "RP" affixed to the front of the package. This label, which is shorthand for "Rating Pending," indicates that the product has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting final rating.
The following are the most common ESRB "descriptors," which can be found on the back of the software package:
B. Internet Screening and Other High-Tech Tools
The proliferation of personal computers and the Internet pose daunting new challenges to parents. Unlike other forms of media, the Internet, with its constantly changing content, does not lend itself easily to a rating system. What is more, the efforts of parents to block objectionable content are often frustrated by their children's computer prowess. Not surprisingly, many parents view the Internet as both a blessing and a curse.
Yet, parents do have at their disposal numerous tools to shield children from Internet content they find unsuitable. First, and most basic, parents can place the household computer in a common area frequented by other family members. In this way a child's curiosity would be tempered by a fear of detection.
Parents can also seek a technological fix. Software filters exist that allow parents to block sexual or violent content, restrict their children's e-mail, limit the amount of time children spend over the Internet, and track the Internet sites they visit. Parents can obtain many of these filters on the Internet. In addition, web browsers are available that integrate filtering features. Finally, parents should check with their Internet Service Providers, many of which provide parental filters. 57
A helpful development in this area is the creation of rating systems for Internet sites and games. Perhaps the most promising is a system based on the one described above for packaged video games. This system, developed in 1997 by the ESRB (the same entity that rates video games), uses the same 5 age-based rating labels ("EC", "E", "T", "M", and "AO") for "contained" sites that do not allow interaction between the site and the user or exchange of content or other information that could influence suitability of use. For interactive sites that provide opportunities for the user to engage in an interactive experience, the system assigns the same labels, except that each label is followed by the letter "I" (thus, "ECI", "EI", "TI", "MI", and "AOI"). The "I" cautions that the user can exchange information with other users who may have differing or controversial opinions, or who may influence game play. Like the video game rating system, the Internet rating system uses "descriptors" to further explain the content of Internet sites and games. As with the V-Chip and television ratings, filtering technology used in conjunction with the ESRB ratings will empower parents to shield their children from unsuitable material.
Another useful, all-purpose tool for parents, called "GetNetWise," can be accessed online at Internet address "www.getnetwise.org." This resource, developed by a group of Internet industry corporations and public interest corporations, provides a glossary of Internet terms, a guide to online safety for families, directions for reporting online trouble to law enforcement and child advocacy groups, a directory of Internet filtering and monitoring technology, and a list of Internet sites deemed to be suitable for children and families.
C. Practical Guidance for Parents
In 1996, the American Medical Association published a guide for parents interested in limiting the media's influence on their children. Among the Association's suggestions:
Be alert to the shows and video games your children see. Watch what your children are watching and talk about the program while it is on. Some suggested questions to discuss with your children:
Learn about movies that are playing and videos and video games available for rental or purchase? Be explicit with children about what is appropriate for them to see.
Only watch television when there is something specifically worth watching.
Be careful about what your child watches just before bedtime.
Teach your children about advertising and the influence media has.
Set a good example, for children learn by your example. Warns child psychologist Lois Nightingale: "If children see parents watching 'Rambo,' then get 'Power Rangers' turned off, there are some incongruities there."
In August 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a list of recommendations as part of its report on media education. While many of those recommendations mirror those of the American Medical Association listed above, others go even further in an effort to reduce the impact of media on children. For example:
Dr. Mark Griffith from the University of Plymouth has developed a checklist to help parents determine if their children are playing too many video games. The checklist asks if your child:
According to Dr. Griffith, if the answers to more than 4 of these questions are "yes," your child may be playing video games excessively and parents should intervene and impose limits.58
Parents should know that the impact on children of television, movies, music, video games, and the Internet arises not only from the kinds of behavior they promote, but also from the other activities they replace. A Canadian study analyzed the changes in how families living in a small town spent their days before and after television was introduced. The study found that after television became available, people spent less time talking, socializing outside the home, doing household tasks, engaging in leisure activities, and being involved in community activities. People even slept less once the television entered the home.59 The lesson: Parents should supply their children with alternatives to television, movies, music, video games, and the Internet. Regularly providing things such as art supplies, books to read, athletic activities, or outdoor excursions will reduce the number of arguments about what to watch on television and teach children how to enjoy a broader range of activities.
Finally, parents should realize that there is simply no substitute for close adult supervision of, and involvement in, the lives of their children. Parents must take time to learn what their children are viewing and playing. Even the most seemingly trivial supervision can have a profound effect. For instance, many school and public libraries have found that simply placing computers in conspicuous public view deters children from inappropriate use. Reducing the effects of media violence requires sound parenting as well as responsible, responsive government.
The effect of media violence on our children is no longer open to debate. Countless studies have shown that a steady diet of television, movie, music, video game, and Internet violence plays a significant role in the disheartening number of violent acts committed by America's youth. We must now devote ourselves to reducing the amount and degree of violence in our media and to shielding our children from such harmful depictions.
Toward that end, the Senate has passed the Juvenile Justice Act, which forgoes government compulsion in favor of encouraging responsible corporate behavior and empowering parents. As this report advocates, more must be done by government on both of these fronts, but parents must understand and embrace their role in this national effort. While government can set forth, though public policy, what we as a society expect of ourselves, parents ultimately bear the responsibility of shaping their children to meet those expectations. This report, it is hoped, has provided parents some helpful tools for that purpose.