November 03, 2000

from the president

Media Violence

By Daniel Borenstein, M.D.

On September 13 I testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation chaired by Senator John McCain in response to the FTC report on "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children". I was speaking on behalf of APA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

The key finding of the FTC report was that the motion picture, music recording, and electronic game industries routinely target young children in their marketing efforts. Just prior to leaving the hotel to testify, I looked across the street at a construction site. All of the workers were wearing steel hats. I thought it was ironic that we have laws protecting construction workers’ heads but very little protection for vulnerable children’s brains when they are exposed to potentially harmful media.

At this time there are more than 1,000 studies based on more than 30 years of research demonstrating a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. In 1972 a Surgeon General’s report cited evidence of a link between screen violence and aggressive behavior in children. In 1982 an NIMH study indicated there was a consensus that TV violence and aggression were linked. In 1994 the National Television Violence Study, which was funded by the TV industry, found that the context in which most violence is presented on TV poses risks for viewers.

APA has been in the forefront of efforts to alert parents about the risks that violence in the media brings to their children. In 1976 APA had extensive discussions with the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, AACAP, and the PTA about media violence. In 1984 APA worked with the pediatric organization to caution parents and physicians that TV may promote aggressive behavior.

In December 1996 Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), came to a meeting of the APA Board of Trustees hoping to gain support for the MPAA’s voluntary rating system. APA declined because the guidelines are far from comprehensive and do not provide sufficient information to interested parents. Age ratings are clearly inadequate. The context in which violence is depicted must be described. Is the violence glamorized, suggesting that it is the appropriate way to solve problems? Is it trivialized to the point of desensitizing the audience to the pain and suffering it causes?

On July 26, on behalf of APA, I signed a joint statement with the AMA, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the psychology and pediatric organizations on the "Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children" for a Congressional Public Health Summit.

The AMA and APA alliances have been engaged in a number of projects to encourage children to resolve conflicts with words instead of actions. The AMA Alliance’s 1995 Stop America’s Violence Everywhere (SAVE) program has multiple projects such as "Hands are NOT for Hitting" that it presents in schools to children ranging from ages 4 to 10. It also has a crisis line, SAFE CHOICES at (800) 799-SAFE, which provides a local referral for victims of domestic violence. For the past two years, the APA Alliance has sponsored the "When Not to Keep a Secret" essay project for ninth and 10th grade students to encourage talk about their violent or suicidal classmates.

In their testimony, media representatives pointed out that children in Canada see the same movies and listen to the same music but do not have the amount of violent behavior exhibited by children in this country. Obviously, the etiology of at least some if not the majority of violent behavior in children and young adults is more complex than exposure to violence in the media. In fact, violent behavior between parents or between a parent and a child are much more predictive of subsequent violent behavior in the child.

Developing a more precise media-rating system would be helpful to some families, but it misses the mark. Behavior is shaped in homes and neighborhoods. Educational and social service interventions in families during pregnancy and the formative years of childhood would be much more effective in diminishing the level of violence in our society.