June 7, 2006 -- Lawmakers are eyeing video game, television, and Internet companies as concerns mount about the effects that media content may be having on children.
Worries over free speech rights have held Congress back in recent years from attempting crackdowns on what some see as a proliferation of violence and sex-laden content reaching U.S. children.
But an increasing number of lawmakers are warning media and Internet companies to work harder to keep inappropriate content away from kids, or face federal regulation.
“For those of you who are representing the industry perspective, I’ll just caution you that there is not a lot of time,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Wednesday at a Washington forum on children and media content sponsored by the New America Foundation.
In January, Republicans and Democrats on a Senate committee warned makers of adult films to come up with a voluntary rating system for their Internet content or face a federal crackdown. Makers of adult films said they support a ratings system that can be tied to filter programs, making it easier to screen out inappropriate content.
Hours With Media
Kids between ages 8 and 18 now spend an average of more than three hours per day watching television and videos, according to recent survey data released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. But console-based and Internet-based video games are garnering an increasing amount of their attention, the data show.
That has helped spread increased media viewing time to a younger and younger set of kids. Children under 6 now spend an average of two hours per day playing video games on computers or in front of a TV, according to Vicki Rideout, a Kaiser Foundation researcher and vice president.
“In a typical day, 8 out of 10 of them will use some screen media,” she said.
Those figures are likely to increase further as video content arrives on cell phones, iPods, and other popular hand-held media. “Most kids will soon be walking around with the Internet in their backpacks,” said Michael Calabrese, vice president of the New America Foundation.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told the forum Wednesday that electronic media are increasingly serving as a surrogate for busy parents. Clinton has backed funding for large-scale government studies on the effects of video game and TV content on children.
“We don’t know the effects. We are conducting an experiment on raising our children,” she said. “If we don’t try to get ahead of this, the consequences are hard to predict.”
Clinton has been active in attacking a new generation of video games featuring gun violence, criminal activity, and -- in some cases -- sexual activity.
A Federal Communications Commission study released in March showed that 42% of children between the ages of 13 and 16 were able to purchase Mature-rated video games that are supposed to be reserved for adult gamers.
Still, there is some evidence retailers are getting better at enforcing the ratings. Eighty-five percent of kids in a 2000 study were able to buy Mature-rated games in stores.
Despite the warnings, it remains unclear how far Congress can go in regulating the content of video games, Internet content, or other media. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s block of the Child Online Protection Act.
That law would have forced providers of adult Internet content to restrict access to sexually-explicit sites and games to adults.