(Note: The following essay originally appeared in a June 2001 issue of Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), a political newsletter based in Lansing, Mich. Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed wrote in response to an assigned question from MIRS, "To what extent can youth violence be attributed to violence in media and is there a role for government to play in minimizing the exposure of youth to violent material?"
Though it is now five years old, its message is as timely as ever and reinforces key points of an address delivered at the Mackinac Center by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan on June 14, 2006.)
The stark reality of violence committed by young men and women who have not yet completed high school demands an explanation. News stories of brutal youth aggression are becoming disturbingly frequent, raising many questions about what’s happening to our culture and our values and what to do about it.
On the surface, violence in the media seems to be a plausible candidate. The U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary produced a report titled "Children, Violence, and the Media" in September of 1999. This report summarized its findings with a number of statistics, including the fact that "by age 18 an American child will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence." The report goes on to state that "almost 50 percent of children have [a] television in their rooms; [and] 88.7 percent of homes with children have home video game equipment, a personal computer, or both." The report also says the number of juvenile arrests in the United States for violent crimes was 123,500 in 1997.
The Senate committee report attempts to link unrelated data to support what has become a prevalent view — that media violence is a primary contributing factor to youth violence. But even this report qualifies its position, and states: "The effect is small compared with many other possible causes, such as parental attitudes or knowledge and experience with the real violence of our society."
Movies and television, the primary "media" suspects in youth violence, have not been with us for all that many decades and the prevalence of violence in them is more recent still. More specifically, the very techniques which are used to develop a statistical correlation between television viewing and aggression are questionable, and the correlation often disappears in studies when corrections are made for other factors, especially a child’s intelligence or a pre-existing level of aggression.
Much of the research that has been done in the area of media violence has yielded contradictory results, and the results are often statistically insignificant when viewed as a whole. What constitutes "violent" programming is not as precise and objective as one might first assume. At least one study suggested that an almost threefold increase in aggression occurs among previously low-aggression preschoolers after watching "Sesame Street" or "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood."
Parents are the primary factor in determining the social traits and tendencies of a child. The observation and discipline of children by their parents is the primary influence on a child’s behavior in general. It is the lack of such parental involvement that turns out to be one of the most frequently replicated predictors of aggressive behavior. How parents respond to inappropriate behavior and what kind of environment they provide for their children has a far greater effect than the media ever could. Intact families that place a premium on practicing high moral standards produce far fewer violence-prone youth than do broken homes or homes where moral standards are not stressed.
We need to do some major soul searching about where children are getting their values these days, especially in those instances when they are not coming from good parenting. The public schools have become so thoroughly secularized and values-neutral that kids aren’t typically getting strong moral instruction there either.
As an aside, we still occasionally hear that old canard about home-schooled children not being properly "socialized." But at least anecdotally, it seems powerfully obvious that home-schooled children aren’t part of the problems of drugs or youth violence. Maybe there is something about the "socialization" that occurs in some public schools that needs to be re-examined.
How children respond to the world around them and its difficulties is therefore dependent on many factors other than the content of the media they observe. This is fundamental, and was recognized in 1961 by researchers Schramm, Lyle & Parker when they concluded, "For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For some children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial."
A report released in 2000 by the National Center for Fathering shows that more children are growing up today without fathers in their homes than ever before. In 1960, 8 percent of America’s children were living with their mother only. That number was up to 18 percent in 1980, and now it is up to 24 percent. The problem may not be so much what’s on TV as it is that in too many homes there’s no father to turn it off and provide other forms of guidance and entertainment.
Video games in particular are often believed to have a measurable negative impact on a child’s behavior patterns, causing him or her to be more aggressive. Reliable evidence for this is not apparent. The Surgeon General published a report on youth violence in January of 2001, but it stated that the impact of video games on violent behavior appeared to be small, although the full extent has yet to be determined.
Last year (2000), the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules requiring all television sets with picture screens 33 centimeters (13 inches) or larger to be equipped with features to block the display of television programming based upon its rating. Known as the "V-Chip," this technology reads information encoded in the rated program and blocks programs from the set based upon the rating selected by the parent. Half of all new television models 13 inches or larger manufactured after July 1, 1999, and all sets 13 inches or larger manufactured after January 1, 2000, must have V-Chip technology. Set top boxes that allow consumers to use V-Chip technology on their existing sets are now available. But government-mandated V-chips may be overrated for several reasons. The most obvious of these is the simple fact that the children who most need to be protected from exposure to objectionable content are generally the ones with neglectful parents who will probably not activate the V-chip in the first place.
The prevalence of youth violence is indicative of something much more fundamental than what’s showing at the movies or on TV. It’s a sign of cultural disintegration. Free men and women of good character create a strong culture. Character means empathy for others and self-control, and that character is formed by the process of good habits — in all of our acts. It means that the real solution to youth violence is not likely to be found in an act of the legislature.
Colorado Governor Bill Owens was right when he recently told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that the solution "will come one child at a time as parents teach their children the difference between right and wrong. The solution will come when parents turn off violent and hateful television shows. More important, it will come when parents teach their children how to discern the good from the bad. And it will come when we realize that we cannot abandon our children to the dark side of the Internet."
One message that needs to be heard loud and clear once again is that parents should not abandon the responsibility for the education of their children to the government; they need to step up to the plate and be the primary guidance counselors for their children. For more on the related issue of character, see www.mackinac.org/7744.
If there’s a role for government in this, it certainly is not in the realm of media censorship. Aside from First Amendment implications, restrictions on media are aimed only at the supply of objectionable material. They would do little to curtail the heart of the problem, which is the demand for it. Indeed, as long as the demand is there, the supply will follow, even if it goes underground.
Certainly, government officials ought to maintain high personal and professional standards and serve as positive role models. When they lie under oath, excuse their own breaking of the law by declaring "no legal authority," repeatedly drive drunk, abuse women, or in any other way behave like undisciplined children, they should be shamed and bounced out of office.
And while they are in office, they shouldn’t pass laws or promulgate policies that make it harder for families to stay together or for children to get a healthy start in life — laws and policies like sky-high tax burdens, welfare that gets more generous if the father splits, and an education system that traps kids in failing and dangerous schools that breed more crime than learning. If legislators who crusade against the scourge of youth violence are really serious about it, they ought to be in the forefront of the movement to give children and parents more freedom of choice when it comes to schooling.
Not all problems originate in government, and it may come as a surprise to the statists that not all solutions originate in government either. Youth violence is a serious problem for which there is no one magic bullet or even several magic bullets. It’s a problem that requires virtually everyone to pitch in by reforming themselves and their families first. If we do that, what’s on the TV will only get better but won’t really matter much in any event.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.