Civil Liberties

Parents Adrift on an Angry Sea

The FCC's misbegotten report on video violence


"Violent Television Programming and its Impact on Children," the Federal Communications Commission's just-released report (pdf) on the need to regulate violence in television, fails to define violence, delineate the scope of what needs regulating, or explain how exactly dangerously-placed pixels will destroy the nation's children. The 39-page report, two years in the making, is clear on only one point: Parents are the "first and last line of defense" against violence in television, and that, in itself, is the problem.

Consider the V-Chip, the blocking device that Congress demanded be installed in every new TV larger than 13 inches. Even more beguiling than the little-known on/off switch, this control module appears well beyond the understanding of most child-owning Americans. The report warns us that activating a V-Chip is a "multi-step" process. Even worse, parents don't even seem to know that their televisions contain these devices. Thirty nine percent of parents who own V-Chips apparently think they don't. And blocking technology, the report helpfully explains, "does not ensure that children are prevented from viewing violent programming unless it is activated."

When it comes to the TV ratings system, parents don't fare much better. "Only 24 percent of parents of young children," explains the report, "could name any of the ratings that would apply to programming appropriate for children that age." In 2001, 14 percent of parents said they'd never heard of the TV ratings system; today, 20 percent say they've never heard of it. Twelve percent of parents knew that the rating FV stands for "fantasy violence"; eight percent told researchers that it meant "family viewing."

At this point in our story, you might expect the FCC to recommend that the act of childbearing require its imprimatur. But the FCC just thinks parents need… help. Parents, writes Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a most poetic report addendum, "are like 17th century sailors subject to the whims of an angry sea." FCC head Kevin Martin piles on, explaining that lost parent/sailors are legion. "Even parents who have TVs equipped with a V-chip need more help," he writes. "According to a recent Zogby poll, 88% of parents did not use a V-chip or a cable blocking device."

This is a curious leap of reasoning. When the public chooses not to use or consume some widely available good–the ill-fated Zune, for instance–we typically assume that consumer taste has been misjudged, the size of a potential market miscalculated. The V-chip and TV ratings system are held to a higher standard. Unlike the Zune, you're required to own the V-chip with the purchase of a new TV. And if you choose not to use the chip you had no choice but to buy, we're to assume you don't understand it.

There is another, more Occam-friendly explanation for parents' ignorance of ratings and chips, but it is in no one's interest to suggest that parents aren't particularly concerned about the effects of Extreme Makeover or CSI. Free speech groups who promote education and voluntary parental controls are invested in parental competence. Government officials who want to "help" parents by obviating the need for parental discretion must argue that their help is wanted. Both sides of the debate have adopted the rhetoric of parental empowerment, and they're both faced with a majority of parents who choose not to use the tools they're forced to buy. And so censorship advocates argue that parents are the true children, in want of the protection they're simply unable to provide.

It's not that parents don't think media violence is benign in the abstract; when polled, they tend to express concern about its effects. It just doesn't seem to be their kids at issue. A similar dynamic seems to be at work in video game purchases. According to a recent Federal Trade Commission report (pdf), 90 percent of parents are aware of the game ratings system, and two thirds of parents always or usually agree with its determinations. Yet 40 percent of parents who know system report that they let their kids play games deemed Mature; nearly a quarter of kids named an M-rated game as a favorite.

Parents, adrift illiterates that they are, probably haven't perused many studies on media violence and child aggression, nor many meta-analyses assessing the state of that research. But perhaps they've already concluded, through the field experiment that is parenting, what skeptical researchers have long held: The link between televised violence and a violent society is extremely tenuous. It's a fact even the report's authors seem to have gathered, given their tepid description of the link. "We agree with the views of the Surgeon General and find that, on balance, research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term."

As University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman has argued, laboratory experiments that show such a link are highly problematic: The measures of aggression are analogues of questionable value, it is difficult to equate violent films with nonviolent films and tease out the effects of violence, and experiment subjects may simply exhibit the behaviors they think researchers want to see. And outside the lab? "Field experiments almost all fail to find any increase in aggression due to exposure to violent media," says Freedman. "There is nothing there."

The report as a whole is oddly anachronistic, a throwback to an age when a box in the family room went unrivaled for a kid's attention. "Television is perhaps the most powerful force at work in the world today," writes commission Michael J. Copps, a statement at best meaningless and at worst misleading. How powerful a force is television in an American child's life? The report claims children spend between two and four hours in front of the television a day, but cites a studies that puts the number at one for children up to age 6 and 13.6 hours per week for ages 13-24.

Such numbers mean very little on their own. Children experience television among a cacophony of other messages and mediums, from the internet to radio to magazines to music to video games. Broadcast television doesn't even rule the small screen; cable, satellite, and DVDs compete for attention. Given the shrinking space broadcast occupies in a child's life, and the lack of any obvious connection between violent TV and violent kids, it should come as no surprise that parents have left their V-chips unactivated and the ratings system unstudied.

Perhaps we should trust parents to prioritize the risks to their otherwise well-padded offspring. Supposedly awash in media violence, kids are growing up in an America less violent than the one their parents knew. "Since 1990 there has been a tremendous drop in the rate of violent crime," says Freedman. "If the effects of violence are so great, you'd think the violent crime rate would go up. You'd think there would be an epidemic of crime, but it's dropped like a stone'"and it's now down to where it was before television was invented."

Kerry Howley is an associate editor of reason.

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