My Robocop nightmares; or, Should we shield our kids from violent entertainment?

My essay is a legal argument about why video game laws are invariably found unconstitutional. It’s clear in the piece that I think they’re a bad idea, though a big part of that is because they’re often pure politics. It’s no coincidence, for example, that two of the senators pushing the federal video game bill — Evan Bayh and Hillary Clinton — are likely 2008 presidential candidates.

But the issue goes beyond court rulings and legal precedent. The question remains: Should we keep violent entertainment away from kids?

My easy answer is maybe, but if so then that’s a parent’s job. If the video game industry wants to self-regulate like Hollywood does, fine. Getting the government involved in deciding what we can and can’t see is a dangerous game.

Beyond that, though, why should we shield kids from violent stuff? One argument — used as part of the legal defense of laws restricting game sales — is that violent games make kids more violent and are therefore harmful to children and the community. There a few newspaper articles every year about some new video game study that purports to support this argument. What’s striking about the court rulings against video game laws is how thoroughly and repeatedly they debunk this research. There is essentially no social-scientific evidence as of yet that violent video games make people more violent.

Another argument is that exposing kids to violent entertainment desensitizes them to violence. Even if that were the case, so what? The implication is that a child desensitized to violence is more likely to commit or condone violence. I don’t think that idea has merit, because it’s ultimately another version of “violent games make kids more violent.” But I’m not even sure kids do get desensitized. I saw Robocop when I was 7 and had nightmares for months. I still look away during some violent movies. I know plenty of people in their 20s who grew up on violent movies, TV, and video games and can’t stomach Quentin Tarantino or The Sopranos, while others who watched the same stuff as kids can. To put it another way, are all my friends in medical school able to stomach the blood and bodily fluids because they were desensitized to gore and I wasn’t?

I think kids are pretty good self-regulators when it comes to violence. If they’re ok with it, let them watch; they won’t become sociopaths or abusers. If they’re grossed out and freaked out and scared, respect that. Judge Richard Posner puts it nicely in this 2001 decision:

Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.

But there’s something limiting to the discussion of violent entertainment. I’ll introduce it with an analogy to comic strips: A couple of times a year, newspapers drop a comic strip for a few days because of “objectionable content.” Usually it’s Doonesbury saying “sucks” or some other mild curse word, or Boondocks saying something racially controversial or just plain out there. I always find these “controversies” funny because every single day, strips like Hagar the Horrible, Blondie, Andy Capp and Shoe expose children to sexism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, spousal neglect and depression — all presented as humorous and not a big deal.

I think the discussion of entertainment violence is similarly limited. We decry zombie movies and slice-and-dice video games — but we treat pro sports as something that’s normal and healthy for kids to get into before they can read. We protest Grand Theft Auto but say nothing about ubiquitous sexist, violent advertising that treats women no differently from that video game. We question whether kids should play war-themed video games while our government endorses and condones torture in war.

Yes, violent movies and games play a part in this culture of violence. But kids know that Resident Evil isn’t real, that women aren’t Grand Theft Auto prostitutes to be beaten up and robbed. It’s the more subtle violence — football as national religion, nonstop ads with phallic beer bottles near models’ crotches — that can have an effect.

The answer isn’t to shield children from the over-the-top violence (unless they want to be shielded). The answer is to talk with them about all of this and show them, through our own actions, that the subtle violence is as bad as the cartoon mayhem would be if it were real. By all means, let’s have a discussion about media violence. But make it a real discussion. Let’s also talk about the rest of the violence in American society — the violence that’s real, that doesn’t come out with oversized guns a-blazing, and that hurts us all.

— March 19, 2006

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