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Fighting the Wrong Battle

There are no convincing scientific correlations between violent behavior and violent video game play.  Yet, parent groups across the nation continue to vigorously fight this battle.  They lobby lawmakers, hold rallies, and press for strict limitations on violent games.  They have had some recent success.

The state of California passed a law making it illegal to sell violent video games to anyone under 18.  The U.S. Supreme Court will hear this case later this year.  The lobbying arm of the video game industry, the Entertainment Software Association, spends millions a year fighting these regulatory efforts.  Parents want to protect their kids, and video game companies want to protect their profits.  But, is either of these really in jeopardy?

In the first place, video games cost a lot of money.  I don’t know too many 12-year olds who have $50 and transportation to the mall to buy games.  While I cannot fault parents for wanting to protect their kids, I think these laws are a lot of effort focused in a direction that will provide little bang for the concerned-parent’s buck.  Further, there are no studies that suggest such bans will decrease the playing of violent video games.  Banning the sale of these games to minors may actually increase play time!

But the most pressing issue is obscured:  video game play comprises an ever-increasing slice of recreational time for our kids.  Passing laws about who gets to purchase these games will do nothing to address excessive screen time, sedentary lifestyles, and screen-time-induced solitude and separation.

It is easy to have one’s attention drawn to sensational and outlandish stories.  But the reality is that the average American child spends close to five hours a day in front of a screen.  Excessive screen time correlates with obesity, attention issues, sleep troubles, poor performance in school, and social issues.  These are the real problems and they are only getting worse.

Rather than spend our time trying to restrict who gets to buy certain games, we should find a way to empower parents to restrict screen time in their homes.  The government could, for example, provide tax credits or funding so that even low income parents could access parental control devices. Parents need to be educated in how to help their children balance their lives and use the offerings of the cyber world to enhance their potential, not destroy it.

  • The next blog will focus on strategies for balancing real life and online realities.
  • Do you know anyone who suffers from Internet addiction?
  • Where do you stand in this debate?

16 Responses to “Fighting the Wrong Battle”

  1. joel wilson says:

    I agree with most of your conclusions Kevin that control of screen time is of paramount importance. But to throw out the studies on violence begets violence because they are not perfect, is an injustice. Sometimes you just need to close your eyes and use your own observations and logic. Many kids get $20 to 50/week allowances and always can get a ride to a mall!

  2. Jerry says:

    It is so easy I think to get outraged. Some of us are outrage-a-holics…We love to be outraged and look for things to be outraged about. Most people who do this are not really concerned about the impact they have, but rather enjoy the righteousness they feel. I looked on the Internet and there are many studies confirming a link with excessive screen teim and: sleep problems, attention issues, social problems and obesity. It seems that the energy of these people is not focused properly. Thanks for doign what you do!!!!!

  3. Tom Lietaert says:

    Thank you Kevin. As we’ve discussed before, it’s my perception that few people want to do the work to transform the underlying causes of our social ill’s. It’s much easier to put the blame outside of ourselves and create more rules and laws to govern behavior (which is an illusion, of course).

    I wonder if there’s been any research demonstrating the benefits to people of having an outlet for their frustrations?

    • kevin says:

      I think that would be some great research, Tom. I suspect beneficial correlation would be found. At the ADHD Study groups I run, watching kids play video games has often given me a great window into their psyches. There is something dis- inhibiting about them. Thank you for your remarks. We get so wrapped up in moral outrage sometimes that we don’t carefully consider the impact.

  4. Robyn says:

    I have to disagree with you on this issue. As a California resident and educator, I have witnessed that many California parents do not want to be educated on how to raise their children. A $100 allowance is not uncommon, and many children as young as 12 are dropped off at the mall to be babysat by the many retail offerings. If parents don’t care, then perhaps the law should step in. If the parents really want their kids playing R rated games, they can still buy it for them.

    This is why we have state regulations/laws. The California law only affects California children. Maybe it won’t help, but isn’t it worth a try?

    • kevin says:

      Thank you for weighing in Robyn. $100 allowance? Wow! I guess I am still decidedly a Midwesterner. My prediction is that this law will do nothing to address the underlying problems. ANother issue, which I did not mention in the article, is that barring free speech among our young people is often a step toward more broadly-based initiatives. Such moves just make me uncomfortable.

      • Robyn says:

        I agree that censorship is usually not a good thing. In California, we are experiencing a “Lord of the Flies” situation. A total breakdown of our state’s youth. In the end, I would rather see our future generation make it to 18, and let them make their own decisions then. And by ‘make it’, I mean alive, off drugs, and without a phelony arrest record.
        Seperate note: We have always had a process for exposing adult content to minors: movie ratings for example. I never felt censored waiting until age 17 to see, say “American Psycho”.

        • kevin says:

          Robyn, thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Something tells me I should be researching the situation in California. I do not think I have all the facts. Thank you for inspiring me.

        • Ian says:

          Anecdotes about “many” kids having exorbitant allowances and being dropped off at the mall to indulge in Grand Theft Auto until they’re neurologically rewired to be sociopaths sound horrifying, but lack any empirical verification. Even if we assume that myriad children are buying hyperviolent videogames (a tenuous claim without resort to any data or studies), and we assume that these same kids are committing horrible crimes and engaging in untold anti-social behavior (again, tenuous without any supporting data), inferring cause solely because of correlation is just classically fallacious (post hoc ergo propter hoc etc. etc.).

          Notwithstanding the ongoing peer-reviewed Harvard Medical School study orchestrated by Professor Cheryl Olson, which explored the effects of prolonged video game play on pre/adolescent children and found no link between violent video games and youth violence, other factors play actual roles in the disposition of children – like, say, poverty and more general socio-economic demographics which common sense and hard data tell us have actual, significant effects on child development. Why should we push the government to regulate what is, at its most generous to your position, an attendant consequence of the variable that actually contributes to increased propensity for youth violence (class and economics) at the expense of focusing more substantially on that primary cause?

          Dr. Olson also happens to have authored a paper of some repute debunking claims that we are in the midst of a “total breakdown of our [nation’s] youth,” and that found that increased proliferation of violent videogames coincides with a significant decrease in youth violence overall. Sadly, the author failed to attribute this decrease to the increased prevalence of violent video games. (See Media Violence Research and Youth Violence Data: Why Do They Conflict? Academic Psychiatry 28:144-150, June 2004). California, which you cite as the epicenter of a new Thunderdome, has experienced remarkable declines in youth felonies, even amid an increase in youth population and, undoubtedly an increase in the consumption of violent video games. This decline is in the hard numbers, and is not prorated according to the increased population (see this figure http://www.lao.ca.gov/2007/cj_primer/crim_j18.jpg, straight from the California government).

          All the reputable data on the subject actually points to the following conclusion: Violent video games don’t cause bad behavior in children. Rather, some no-good, terrible sociopathic kids happen to also play violent video games. If you want to address youth violence, commit the welfare state to addressing social inequality and poverty – the factors that actually metastasize bad parents and troubled kids.

          As a final note, The Supreme Court will almost certainly affirm the 9th Circuit ruling in the Schwarzenegger v. EMA case. There is precedent that found government-enforced ratings of films to be unconstitutional, and there is no reason that similar principles won’t be applied to video games as well. California’s law is a laughably overinclusive infringement of first amendment rights and it won’t survive the strict scrutiny under which federal courts analyze such incursions.

          • kevin says:

            Thank you, Ian, for a most enlightening response. You have given this discussion plenty of fodder to carry it forward. I hope others will weigh in on what you’ve written. You have given us plenty to think about.

  5. Arnór says:

    I wonder where we could be at right now if all the time, effort and money wasted on these moral panics had been used for stuff that actually works.

  6. Christopher says:

    Believe it or not, the bulk of the the more violent video games are purchased by the parents for their kids for Christmas. Video games these days cost more than $50 in some cases, it’s not like when I was a child and these things didn’t cost more then $29.99. And I have a pretty good feeling that most parents are not giving their children a $100 allowance per week.

    So I agree, bans on the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors make about as much sense as trying to use an electric pencil sharpener when the power is out.

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