Teenage Wasteland

Critics on the left and right falsely portray kids as passive victims of mass media.

Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 267 pages, $29.95

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, by Alissa Quart, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 239 pages, $25

Hollywood has become to the right what big corporations are to the left. When it comes to criticizing popular entertainment, the two targets coincide, and the differences between left and right dissolve. I vividly remember the ghastly sight of Jesse Jackson and Bill Bennett appearing together on CBS's Face the Nation a decade ago, united in their eagerness to protect vulnerable youth from cultural pollution.

Two new books, one mainly from the right and the other from the left, reflect this bipartisan view of America's young people as victims of mass culture and mass marketing. But both also contain hints that kids are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with evil desires -- that in fact, they and their parents can counteract the antisocial messages decried by critics like Jackson and Bennett.

Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children must be understood in the context of the Federal Trade Commission's September 2000 report on the entertainment industry's allegedly deceptive marketing practices. Congress ordered up the study immediately after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, largely because the two killers reportedly had played the video game Doom and seen the film The Matrix shortly before their rampage.

Despite the FTC's lukewarm conclusion that violent depictions might have a harmful effect on minors, The Wall Street Journal and other alarmed guardians of morality latched onto the report, along with a joint statement from the American Medical Association and other health organizations condemning media violence, as an excuse to ratchet up their culture war. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) denounced Hollywood's "culture of carnage." He and his allies insisted that the debate about the relationship between fictional and real-life violence had been settled; now was the time for action.

The contributors to Kid Stuff, a collection of 11 essays, do want action, but first and foremost they are empiricists. And the data come flying fast and furious, occasionally making some inescapable points. Media, to a certain extent, do act in loco parentis. The average American child spends some 5.5 hours a day interacting with media (including the Internet), a figure that rises to seven hours by age 18.

Many of the contributors to Kid Stuff insist that movies, TV shows, and video games not only assault kids with sex and violence but induce them to imitate what they see on the screen, ultimately causing them to lose their moral compasses.

Syracuse University historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn sees America awash in a culture of moral obscenity. Popular culture routinely strips people of their humanity, she argues, tediously detailing content analyses showing, for example, that "children who watch an average amount of TV see 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence during their elementary school years." She adds, "By renting just four videos -- Total Recall, Robocop 2, Rambo III, and Die Hard III -- a child would witness 525 deaths." Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson, in his review of 32 studies on violent video games, concludes that repeated game playing heightens aggression and reduces pro-social behavior among both children and adults.

Such concerns fly in the face of two realities. First, youth crime has dropped sharply in the last decade. From 1992 (the year Mortal Kombat debuted) to 2000, arrests for serious juvenile crime fell by about two-thirds, while the number of children carrying guns to school dropped by half. As for sex, a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation (one of the leaders in the cultural cleanup crusade) revealed that the percentage of high school students who had engaged in sexual intercourse declined from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001. Hollywood may not deserve credit for those trends, but it clearly cannot be blamed for increases in sex and violence that have not occurred.

Second, declarations about the baneful influence of popular culture gloss over the dearth of evidence supporting a causal link between watching portrayals of violence and engaging in violent behavior. As scholars such as University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman and University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer have shown, the experimental studies the alarmists like to cite may hinge on self-fulfilling prophecies, with researchers prodding subjects into giving the "right" answer. Furthermore, it's not clear how the stimuli and measures of aggression used in the highly artificial setting of a laboratory relate to viewing and violence in the real world.

The epidemiological studies are also seriously flawed. Critics of violent TV often cite the work of Seattle psychiatrist Brandon Centerwall. In a 1992 Journal of the American Medical Association article, Centerwall noted that the white homicide rate in the U.S. rose 93 percent in the three decades following the introduction of household television sets. For him, this trend demonstrated the corrosive effects of TV. Oddly, Centerwall did not distinguish between violent shows and other kinds of programming, and it's not clear what he would have found if he had. SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner has found that metropolitan areas in which violent TV programs attract especially large audiences have lower rates of violent crime.

Centerwall also failed to note that the homicide rate barely changed from 1945 to 1967; the big increase started in the late 1960s, suggesting that something other than TV was at work. Two University of California at Berkeley criminologists, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, tested Centerwall's thesis with data from other countries, and they found no consistent pattern. The murder rate remained constant in Italy and declined in France, Germany, and Japan following the introduction of TV.

Two other favorites of the culture warriors are Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann, psychologists at the University of Michigan whose research played a crucial role in the passage of "V-chip" legislation, which requires that TV sets include devices enabling parents to block shows based on network content ratings. Eron and Huesmann's most memorable moment came in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, when they showed that a preference for violent TV at age 8 correlated with the seriousness of criminal convictions by age 30. This claim was based on a sample of three cases.

Since the evidence in Kid Stuff tends to be selected for its usefulness in an indictment of popular culture, it's little surprise that many of the contributors are eager to restrict kids' exposure to TV, movies, video games, and music. But they generally prefer that Mom and Dad serve as the regulators. "Why are [parents] so intimidated by the V-chip?" wonder the editors, Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti, research professors of education and public policy, respectively, at New York University. Anderson, the Iowa State psychologist, commends a San Antonio news reporter who admitted to him that she throws out any video games containing violence that she finds at home, regardless of whether they belong to her son or one of his friends. Anderson supports a unitary entertainment rating system, which in practice probably would be less draconian than useless. Parents already have a wealth of information about the suitability of programming for kids; hard as it is for media critics to believe, many parents just don't put much stock in ratings.

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