Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Cheryl K. Olson, co-founder of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard Medical School, highlights the weakness of the scientific support for the California video game law that the Supreme Court overturned on Monday:
The state's case was built on assumptions—that violent games cause children psychological or neurological harm and make them more aggressive and likely to harm other people—that are not supported by evidence….
There's no evidence that [wielding weapons in games like Grand Theft Auto] leads to violent behavior in real life. F.B.I. data shows that youth violence continues to decline; it is now at its lowest rate in years, while bullying appears to be stable or decreasing….
Despite parents' worst fears, violence in video games may be less harmful than violence in movies or on the evening news. It does seem reasonable that virtually acting out a murder is worse than watching one. But there is no research supporting this, and one could just as easily argue that interactivity makes games less harmful: the player controls the action, and can stop playing if he feels overwhelmed or upset. And there is much better evidence to support psychological harm from exposure to violence on TV news.
In fact, such games (in moderation) may actually have some positive effects on developing minds.
As the court opinion notes, traditional fairy tales are chock-full of violence; a child experiences and learns to manage fears from the safety of Mom or Dad's lap. Similarly, a teen can try out different identities—how it feels to be a hero, a trickster, a feared or scorned killer, or someone of a different age or sex—in the safe fantasy world of a video game.
Olson, co-author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, agrees that M-rated games "merit parental supervision," and she says more research is necessary to draw any firm conclusions about the effects of video games. But that is not the impression left by Justice Stephen Breyer's dissenting opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, where he says "associations of public health professionals…have reviewed many of these studies and found a significant risk that violent video games, when compared with more passive media, are particularly likely to cause children harm."
Breyer cites a 2000 statement in which the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), joined by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association, claimed "over 1000 studies…point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children." When this statement was released, University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman had recently completed a review of the scientific literature, and he counted about 200 published studies that tried to measure the impact of TV or film violence on aggression. "Anyone who says 'over 1,000' obviously has not looked at the research," he told me. "It's so blatantly out of line." Nor was it correct to say that the research "overwhelmingly" confirmed the belief that watching fictional violence leads to violence in real life. "The majority of studies do not find evidence that supports the notion that television violence causes aggression," Freedman noted.
The AAP also said "the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people…may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music." Since very little research had been done on video games at that point, this assertion amounted to nothing more than speculation. With the benefit of another decade's research, Cheryl Olson concludes that the truth may be precisely the opposite of what the pediatrician group suggested.
Breyer also cites a 2005 resolution (PDF) in which the American Psychological Association (APA) said "comprehensive analysis of violent interactive video game research suggests such exposure…increases aggressive behavior, …increases aggressive thoughts,…increases angry feelings,…decreases helpful behavior, and…increases physiological arousal." As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his majority opinion, the real-world significance of these modest short-term effects is unclear. Furthermore, "the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner…or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated 'E' (appropriate for all ages)…or even when they 'vie[w] a picture of a gun.'" The APA nevertheless suggested that "the practice, repetition, and rewards for acts of violence [in video games] may be more conducive to increasing aggressive behavior among children and youth than passively watching violence on TV and in films." Or maybe not.
Finally, Breyer cites a 2009 statement from the AAP, which nine years earlier already was warning the public, based on a gross misrepresentation of the evidence, about the supposedly well-established connection between fictional and real violence. Having watched with horror the proliferation of violent video games during the preceding decade, the AAP declared that "studies of these rapidly growing and ever-more sophisticated types of media have indicated that the effects of child-initiated virtual violence may be even more profound than those of passive media such as television." Again, or not.
As the Supreme Court (along with every appeals court to confront the issue) correctly concluded, this is far too weak a basis to establish the "compelling interest" required under the First Amendment to justify state-mandated restrictions on access to video games. The pattern that emerges from statements by the "associations of public health professionals" in which Breyer places so much faith is that they do not like violent entertainment and find violent video games especially distasteful, so they are eager to leap ahead of the evidence in claiming pernicious effects that have never actually been documented.
I discuss the video game case in my column today. Jib Fowles analyzed "the hidden conflicts underlying the campaign against violent TV" in a 2001 Reason article, which included a sidebar summarizing the state of the evidence.