Playing for Keeps

By: Dr. Ted Baehr; ©1999
Hollywood executives will privately admit there is a definite link between violence in the media and violence in the society. Dr. Baehr explains how you can help your children be a more discerning viewer.


Playing for Keeps

Dr. Ted Baehr is a resident of Camarillo, author of
The Media-Wise Family, the publisher of MOVIEGUIDE ®, and the Chairman of the Christian Film & Television Com­mission.

The Columbine High School massacre made the public aware of what media research­ers have known for years–not only can violent media influence susceptible youth to commit violence, but, also, according to army psychologist Lt. Col. David Grossman, violent video and computer games can train children to kill!

In the Senate hearings on what caused the Columbine massacre, Col. Grossman, who taught U.S. Army personnel to kill as part of their West Point training, clearly presented the evidence that video games can also train children to kill. After the Paducah and Jonesboro killings, he embarked on a mission to investigate the more than a dozen shootings by adolescents and pre-adolescents of their school-mates. He found that many of the killers had not had much practice with real guns, but that they shared a common exposure to violent video games and movies.

In an article in our magazine, MOVIEGUIDE®, Col. Grossman said that the patterns of video play are similar to what the army uses to train troops, the majority of whom initially have a built-in resistance to killing. Thus, he notes, by exposing children to murder and mayhem at vulnerable stages in their development, the media and, in particular video games, desensitize children by mixing violence and killing with entertainment. It classically conditions them to enjoy role model heroes who kill, maim and mutilate. Finally, video games perform the most important step of operant conditioning–teaching children to kill without thinking by having them practice killing over and over and over again. One young killer told Col. Grossman that he had not used a real gun before and that he didn’t mean to kill, but when the man moved, the boy shot reflexively because he had been trained to kill by the video games.

Col. Grossman’s cogent analysis has helped clarify and illustrate the prior research in this area. There were many studies but most of them were too obtuse for people to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

In the late 1970s, when I was director of the TV Center at City University of New York, the research showed that TV, movies and other mass media were flawed educational tools because they did not offer the student the feedback and response necessary for significant cognitive development. In the early 1980s, video and computer games served to complete the educational loop by allowing the student to interact.

Numerous studies collected and reported in the 1971 Surgeon General’s Report, in the 1978-1979 National Institute of Mental Health reports and in the 1992 American Psycho­logical Association’s Task Force Report showed that the mass media of entertainment, though imperfect educational tools, can and did influence susceptible individuals to commit violence. In fact, studies on the effect of violence in the entertainment media have been conducted so often and the evidence is so overwhelming, that most knowledgeable media experts and educators–and even the New York Times and the London Times–have stated that the evidence is irrefutable.

A 1995 UCLA Center for Communication Policy/U.S News & World Report poll of the top 6,300 executives in Hollywood showed that 87% felt that the violence in the media influences susceptible youth to commit violence. In a 1995 USA Today/Gallup Poll of the general public, 97% of the respondents agreed. A 1992 MTV poll showed that 92% of the children felt the same way.

After the Columbine High School massacre, several entertainment industry leaders spoke out:

“Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this is an idiot.”
-CBS President Leslie Moonves. Associated Press, 5/19/99.
“When the finger is pointed at them [the entertainment industry leaders] about violence, they say their media has no influence; but they turn around and say just the opposite to advertisers. We should all admit our medium has an influence.”
– ABC Chairman Bob Iger. Los Angeles Times, 5/30/99.

If the evidence is irrefutable, if close to 90% of the entertainment industry admits that entertainment can influence susceptible youths to commit violence, if the American people believe that the mass media of entertainment can influence people to commit violent acts, then: Why does the entertainment industry continue to make games with salacious violence? Why do parents continue to let their children play these games if they believe that these games train children to kill? And, why are the advertisements for these violent games aimed at children?

On June 1, 1999, President Clinton shocked many people by reading some of the advertising slogans used to sell popular video games: “More fun than shooting your neighbor’s cat”; “Get in touch with your gun-toting, cold-blooded, murdering side”; and, “Kill your friends, guilt-free.”

The reason this continues seems clear–most people are conflicted and in denial because the fact of the matter is that most people enjoy violent entertainment.

However, as a consequence of this training in violence, newspapers now proclaim the greatest threat facing our culture’s future: “Children on killing sprees”; “Increased risky behavior by children”; “Children at war with their parents!” These are our children–the 77 million children born between 1979 and 1989 – more children entering their teenage years than occurred during the Baby Boom.

These children were not raised on Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver, but on the Samurai-slashing games like Bushido Blade, bloody titles like Quake, and the infamous Mortal Kombat.

The first signs of the character of this new generation may be the killings conducted last year by 15 adolescents and pre-adolescents. According to exhaustive research, the violent media of entertainment has set the moral agenda for the future of our country.

To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt: If you educate a man’s mind and not his heart, you will have an educated barbarian.

This is not to say that all of our 77 million children are educated barbarians. Studies show that most who watch the media merely become desensitized. A significant minority become frightened and paranoid. Regrettably, from 7 to 31 percent of teenagers say they would like to copy the violent movie or game activity in real life.

However, there is an answer. Experts in the field of media understand that you can train your children to discern the difference between right and wrong and to be wise media consumers who will want to choose the good and reject the bad.

Research shows that if you watch with your children and talk to them about what they are watching, you will help them take a critical view toward it. Better yet, if you have them review the movie, television program or game, listing all the things that are wrong, you will help them develop discernment. Even better, if you have them write down their standards, what they feel is right and wrong, and help them understand why at vulnerable ages they should not be exposed to material that may hurt them psychologically, you will help them to become media-wise.

Rather than exploiting the problem, bemoaning the problem or calling for more studies to obfuscate the problem, perhaps it is time that we choose to solve the problem by teaching our children to be media-wise.

For further information about MOVIEGUIDE or
The Media-Wise Family, please call (770) 825-0084, or write: MOVIEGUIDE, 2510-G Las Posas Road, Suite 502, Camarillo, CA 93010, USA

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