Studies linking media violence, violent kids aren’t accurate, author says

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

ARLINGTON, Va. — Narrowly focused scientific experiments do not accurately measure the effects of media violence on children, Marjorie Heins said May 22 at an Author Series program at The Freedom Forum.

Media have varied effects on adults and children, Heins said, but “there is no basis to conclude that even in these laboratory settings there is any consistent result that can be extrapolated to the real world.”

Laboratory tests that show children as being more aggressive after watching a violent television show are not proof that the medium is an actual stimulus of the behavior, she said. One cannot make a “judgment about the long-term effects” of television based on this sample behavior, Heins said.

Heins is director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship. She is also author of the First Amendment Center report Violence and the Media and a new book, Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth.

In her book, Heins says that human aggression can be attributed to a variety of causes, including the factors that make up an individual's unique personality and experiences. The effects of media should be gauged in a broader way rather than quantifying it in isolated laboratory experiments, she said.

Attempting to “protect” kids by restricting what they are exposed to in art and literature goes all the way back to the days of Plato, Heins said. Not much has changed over the years, she said, “but what is thought to be harmful or unacceptable changes over time.”

For example, pornography on the Internet and “indecency” on cable television have, for about a decade now, engaged advocates and the government in heated debates, she said.

But courts and Congress should think about young people's right to free expression, Heins said. The people championing this cause should show the courts that “arguably indecent, sexually explicit content online [that is] clearly not harmful” — such as nude paintings on museum Web sites and information on safe sex and birth control — can be educational and valuable to young people.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that “indecency” is too broad a standard even to apply to kids, the decisions they have handed down over the years have stated without much explanation that “there is a compelling interest in protecting minors from patently offensive speech,” Heins said.

Internet filters, V-chips and other tools designed to block certain information are “false security and false comfort” for parents seeking to protect their children from content they deem inappropriate, Heins said.

Instead, parents should communicate with their children and “try to inculcate values and hope that they (children) will become sexually knowledgeable and media literate,” she said.

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