Unreality Bites

Mike Males
c Youth Today, November 2000

Youth-advocacy lobbies rightly lament that America suffers vastly outsized levels of violence and gunplay compared to peer Western nations, yet few confront the big reason our institutions remain paralyzed in addressing pressing social problems.

Consider, then, politicians’ latest tinpot-banging crusade against "media violence," a campaign devastating to reasoned analysis and tough decision-making. The president froths, the Federal Trade Commission seethes, senators threaten, moguls cower, and candidates fulminate over the possibility that a "minor" might glimpse a PG-rated advertising snippet for an R-rated movie. These are the same administration and Congress that, during the welfare reform debate, didn’t even care whether poorer kids had roofs over their heads.

Unfortunately, political crusaders can count on acquiescence by institutions like the W.T. Grant Foundation, whose recent Adolescent Health series on media influences on youth lends scientific legitimacy to fashionable escapism. According to the big cannons, including the American Academic of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and most "experts," the "book is closed": violent movies, TV, music and games cause teenage violence. Before they slam this dubious treatise shut, however, I challenge them to answer some questions they’ve evaded.

First: Look out the window. All Washington, D.C., kids are exposed to pretty much the same music and screen fare (actually, white kids patronize more violent video games, cable channels, and Internet sites), yet a black teenager is 40 times more likely to murder or be murdered than a white kid living a few Metro stops away. Poverty so dwarfs every other factor that debating fictional media violence is a waste of time.

Second: How come more violent media is associated with fewer violent youth? As violent imagery from gangsta rap to violent games to R-rated slashers proliferated in the 1990s, homicide and every other violent crime by youths plummeted as never before. From 1991 through 1998, as four million teen boys took up Mortal Kombat and Doom, rap music sales tripled, and slasher movies gushed forth, teenage murder dropped 45 percent, rape fell 30 percent, and assault dropped 20 percent.

Now, media blamers: How do you explain those realities?

Laboratory studies linking violent media to aggression are not convincing. Most equate laboratory subjects beating up a doll or "punishing" other subjects by buzzer noises with killers gunning down real victims. (Researchers even claim Sesame Street provokes aggression.) Simplistic lab effects don’t apply in the real world, as is shown in large_scale correlational studies that typically find violent media contribute little or nothing to societal violence. Anecdotal studies (such as psychiatrist Brandon Centerwall’s claim that TV’s advent helped white murder rates to double in the U.S. and Canada) inevitably leave out anecdotes showing the opposite. (Why didn’t TV’s introduction cause murder to increase in France, Italy, Germany and Japan?).

Sure, the Columbine high school shooters’ video mentioned the violent game Doom (along with numerous other issues, from family and peer abuses to Shakespeare). Oklahoma’s 13 year-old school shooter’s "cool under fire" idol was the patriotic, PG-rated Patton -- a Republican classic!

Democratic senator and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who’s made a career of blaming the media for every social problem from teen violence to pregnancy, is a prime example of self_serving misdirection. Lieberman’s family profits from liquor stores, an industry far more contributory to violence and "the breakup of the family" he deplores than anything on the screen.

Authorities in other nations serious about, and successful in, controlling violence shake their heads at American panics over pointless trivialities. The international medical journal The Lancet chastised America’s medical and institutional lobbies to cease preoccupation with fictional media peccadilloes and to instead mount a campaign against real child poverty and domestic violence -- the proven generators of violent kids. That works for Europe, whose more intact families and low violence levels (even with a popular media every bit as bloody as ours) we envy from afar but don’t have the political will to emulate.

Mike Males, sociology instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, authored Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Media Fabricate Fear of Youth (Common Courage Press, fall 2000). E-mail: mmales@earthlink.net.

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