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Should Parents Worry About Violence in Movies, Music, Games?

Reviewed by Annie Finnegan
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 12, 2000 -- Music, movie, and video game companies often specifically target children when they market products supposed to be for "mature audiences only," according to a report just released by the Federal Trade Commission. But the question most parents have is, do children really absorb the messages they get from these different venues?

The answer, to some extent, is yes, many experts say. And some public health officials, pediatricians, and psychologists have expressed concern about the issue and are calling for changes.

The FTC report, released Monday, found that:

  • Of 44 teen-oriented movies that were rated "R" for violence, some 80% were marketed to kids under age 17.
  • Of 55 CDs sold with parental warnings, marketing plans for about 25% of them were specifically aimed at teens.
  • Of 118 video games rated "mature," 83 (70%) were promoted to children.
  • Nearly 85% of the time, children are able to easily buy music and games rated "mature."
  • Just over 50% of movie theaters admit children under 17 to R-rated movies when they are not accompanied by an adult.

Entertainment-industry executives have turned thumbs down on the accusations, saying that ratings and parental warnings are clearly stated. But a Senate committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Wednesday, and the report has quickly become an issue in the presidential campaign.

The violence to which American children are exposed in the name of entertainment is affecting their values and behavior, according to a recent statement from four of the nation's top medical associations -- the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

"We are supportive of the FTC report and are calling on the entertainment industry to join us in working to create safe media for children," says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Rich is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on public education, which assesses the effects of media on children's mental health.

"Since the early days of TV, people have been concerned about this issue," Rich tells WebMD. In fact, more than 3,500 studies in the last 50 years have investigated whether the media bring about different values and behaviors in children. "Of those studies, all but 18 showed an association between exposure to media violence and violent behavior. Twelve of the 18 were funded by the entertainment industry."

"Particularly in the U.S., violence in media is perpetrated by heroes as an acceptable means of conflict resolution," he tells WebMD. "It's our Clint Eastwoods and Arnold Schwarzeneggers, not the bad guys, who are wasting people. So what's happening is they're being exposed to violent behavior as an acceptable means of conflict resolution."

The entertainment media tend to create "mean-world syndrome," says Rich. "It inflates the prevalence of actual violence in the world. ... It creates an environment in which kids feel that they have to be armed or aggressive to 'Get them before they get me.' It's an insidious thing that affects all kids, not just kids prone to violence."

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average child in the U.S. gets over six hours of media exposure every single day, Rich tells WebMD. "They spend more time with media than they do sleeping, or at school, or with their parents."

To what extent are kids affected? "On an individual level, it varies depending on the kid," Rich says. When all the studies' results are tabulated, "they show what sociologists call a medium- level association." In practical medical terms, he says, the link between violent media and violent behavior is stronger than that between ingesting lead and having a lower IQ, than that between passive smoking and lung cancer, than that between failing to use condoms and getting HIV.

Two studies published earlier this year added scientific weight to the claim that violent video games can increase aggression. The studies, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "plus other research on video game violence ... all point in the same direction," researcher Craig A. Anderson, PhD, from Iowa State University, told WebMD in an earlier interview.

"We know for a fact that playing a violent video game for even a short period of time increases aggressive behavior in the short term," said Anderson, who has testified before the U.S. Senate on the impact of "interactive" violence on children. "I think the message I'd like to give the average parent is that when kids -- adults as well -- play violent games, it makes them at least temporarily think about the world in more aggressive terms."

"Parents should be concerned," says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. She's an author of the book on the subject, called Deadly Consequences. In hypothetical situations, she tells WebMD, "it's pretty clear that kids will have less empathy for their victims, will choose violent solutions to problems" if they have been exposed to media violence.

"I have a notion that it's not so much the glorification of violence or the portrayal of violence to solve problems," she says. "It's that other problem-solving strategies are not glamorized, are not shown, so our children's imagination tends to revolve around these recurring violent episodes, as opposed to the skills of negotiation, mediation, or friendliness and forgiveness."

One area parents may overlook is video movies shown at home. But these videos should be carefully monitored, says Kim Thompson, ScD, assistant professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard Medical School of Public Health. Thompson recently published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found violence even in many G-rated movies.

"Much younger kids will be watching them over and over again with their older brothers and sisters," she tells WebMD. "You talk about desensitization as a possibility. Young kids don't have the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. It's really important for parents to help their kids understand things and help them make sense of things they see."