THE RESPONSIVE COMMUNITY
RIGHTS and RESPONSIBiLITIES
Volume 5, Issue 4, Fall 1995

 

Entertainment Violence:
Rights, Regulation, and the Radical Right

 

The traditional sociological analysis of how children develop their values, attitudes, and behavior focuses on family, school, religious institutions, and peer groups. The technological advances of the last 50-odd years require that we now add to this list the entertainment industry. Most children today spend more time being entertained by TV, films, videos, videogames, discs, and tapes than they spend in school or with their family. Should an industry whose major goal is profit maximization be allowed to play such a significant and unregulated role in the socialization of our children?

The media's influence is documented by a large body of research on the effects of TV and film violence. Every major metastudy evaluating this research-the most recent one carried out by the American Psychological Association in 1992-has arrived at the same conclusion: Viewing antisocial, violent behavior on screen puts the viewer at higher risk of behaving in an antisocial, violent way.

The most common responses to the problem have been the assertions that parents should exert more control over their children's entertainment and that media education should be introduced in the schools. Both recommendations are inadequate. Those parents who are at home with their very young children can control entertainment, but millions of toddlers are being raised by child-cane workers. Once the children, especially boys, are in nursery school even highly educated parents determined to protect their children from antisocial, violent entertainment are often overwhelmed by the peer pressure to which their children are subjected. Boys who do not have the 'right violent toys or videos, or are not allowed to watch violent TV shows, are often ostracized. And as children get older and more independent, it becomes virtually impossible to control their' entertainment.

As for media education, it is naive to think that teachers explaining to children that 'media violence is unrealistic, and that it is not good to behave like the violent characters on the screen, will undo the lessons learned from 28 hours per week of TV plus additional hours of films, videogames, and so on. Besides being inadequate, these approaches are also unfair to parents and teachers who, instead of being helped by society at large in the all important task of socializing young children, are constantly hindered. (It is worth noting that interviews with teachers reveal that boys' mimicking of Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and other violent media role models represents a major classroom problem.)

 

LAISSEZ-FAIRE DOES NOT WORK WITH CHILDREN

If we are to have a viable society, we cannot continue to allow the entertainment industry to encourage our children's basest, most violent tendencies, and then ask teachers and parents to undo the harm. We must begin to treat American children as a precious national resource rather than as a commercial market to be exploited for profit.

To begin with, we need a major educational campaign, akin to the anti-smoking campaign of the seventies, to educate parents about the effects of violent entertainment on their children. In the course of viewing slasher and adventure films at movie theaters (while researching a book), I found children, as young as three years old brought by their parents to see films in which people are dismembered, chopped up, and burned alive in graphic detail. Taking their children to such movies should eventually become as unthinkable for parents as taking children to pornographic movies is today.

With regard to TV, all sets' should be equipped with a parental control device permitting parents to block channels and programs they deem inappropriate for their children. Although a bill requiring such a device, as well as a "V-chip" (which permits parents to eliminate programs rated violent), has been passed by the Senate, the House of Representatives has only passed the V-chip provision.

Hopefully parental control device legislation will pass the House as well.

A parental control device should be accompanied by the creation of two public television channels dedicated to top quality programming-one for children aged roughly two to nine, another for preadolescents aged ten to thirteen. The combination would create a separate TV universe for children. For the last 25 years, Sesame Street has been extremely popular with young children of all social classes. There is no reason why we cannot create entertainment of at least equal quality for older children. Reed E. Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, recently suggested that commercial stations might fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest by paying for PBS to carry programs such as Sesame Street. Perhaps this concept could be extended, requiring commercial stations to make a major financial contribution to a Children's Public Broadcasting System.

 

What, then, can we do about films, videos, videogames, and music lyrics that promote violence? We have a long judiciary tradition of laws for the protection of children, including labor, liquor, and pornography laws. Some state laws prohibit the sale of sexually explicit magazines to children under 17. Our double standard with respect to sex and violence has led to a dearth of precedents for protecting children from violent entertainment. But while there is disagreement on details, First Amendment law experts acknowledge that laws designed for that purpose would most likely be upheld by the Supreme Court as long as they did not interfere with the rights of adults. This view is supported by a June 18, 1987 report for Congress prepared by the Congressional Research Service, entitled "Regulating Record Lyrics: A Constitutional Analysis." Its conclusion is that "it would be constitutionally permissible for Congress to restrict access by children to certain records." The report explains that "in addition to sexually oriented material, concern has also been expressed over lyrics which arguably encourage illegal drug use or other types of illegal activity. It appears that such records could also be regulated"

Thus, from a constitutional perspective, it seems likely that we could have regulations of the kind that exist with respect to film in Canada and many European countries. In these countries, movie theater owners are fined if they allow underage children to see films that are rated unsuitable for them. In the United States we have the Motion Picture Association of America ratings, which are developed by the film industry. But these ratings are not accompanied by any penalties. As a result, many movie theater owners ignore them. In fact, a prime target audience for violent "R" rated adventure and slasher films is young teenage boys, who in theory are excluded from seeing them unless accompanied by an adult.

 

THE PRICE OF STAYING WITH THE STATUS QUO

Despite all of the evidence, some will no doubt remain repelled by any proposals requiring governmental regulation. I recommend that these people consider the alternatives.

We can retain the status quo, which permits the entertainment industry to playa significant role as a de facto regulator of our children's entertainment. The burden of raising decent, nonviolent children can continue to be placed in the hands of parents and teachers, while the entertainment industry remains free to create a culture of violence that works against their efforts. We can continue to plead with and attempt to pressure the industry to clean up its act, occasionally boycotting a program or a sponsor. (To judge the effectiveness of this approach, one need only ask how effective it would be if we had to plead continually with the tobacco industry to restrain itself in terms of advertisement and sales, without subjecting it to any governmental regulation.) Certainly intense public pressure and .the threat of serious regulation might lead to some concessions. But these concessions would in all likelihood be discarded when the pressure is off.

Accepting the status quo also means that we can look forward to further escalation of entertainment violence. Soon virtual reality video games will enable children to have the tactile experience of shooting, stabbing, or strangling an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sharon Stone, or-perhaps a world leader such as President Clinton or Boris Yeltsin. In brief, if we do nothing more than apply band-aid solutions, American children will continue to be raised in a culture of violence that encourages their basest, most antisocial violent tendencies.

If those of us who seek to protect the First Amendment rights of adults do nothing to develop a rational' plan for protecting children, we may well be playing into the hands of the extreme right. For while some Americans consider violent, gory entertainment suitable for their children, a significant percentage of Americans feel deeply frustrated in their attempts to raise decent children in a society that seems to do everything possible to thwart them. If we do nothing to help, the messages of the extremists and bigots-the folks who want to remove Catcher in the Rye from high school libraries-are likely to become increasingly attractive to large segments of our population.

 

Myriam Miedzian