Is it Time to Rethink Media Effects?

It has become increasingly common in some academic circles to write off public controversies about children"s media as moral panics. This paper sets out to challenge the implied claim made in this argument that media do not have psychological and cultural impacts on children. This position confuses public concerns with public safety and children"s well being with right wing moralizing about children"s taste. It also reduces the scientific study of the relationship between violent entertainment and anti-social behaviour to a narrow hypothesis of direct causes rather than seeing it as diagnostic work on risk factors. This paper suggests that the fifty year long debate about youth violence would be better understood as a political struggle over the "lifestyle risks" rather than "entertainment values" which now pits media corporations against anxiously concerned parents.

Introduction: The Crisis of Childhood and the Roots of Media Effects Theory

The cultural impacts of technology are rarely foreseen at their inception warned Harold Innis (1951) inThe Bias of Communication, his prescient analysis of the important role that media have played throughout history. It was therefore important to distinguish the impact of any technology from the hopes and ideologies we projected upon them.1 For many years, state and church maintained monopolistic control over print technologies; yet in the long term cultural impact of the printing press could not be contained, for the accelerated diffusion of knowledge and scientific rationality precipitated by print ultimately weakened church and state authority, while gradually shifting the exercise of power into the commercialized arena of public journalism and opinion. Innis predicted that new communication technologies, like radio and TV, would similarly generate profound and seemingly paradoxicaldisturbances in social communication. And by undermining the very oligopoly of scientific knowledge and authority of those who currently controlled them new media often precipitated political struggles to shape their role in the modernizing world.

It is not surprising that in post-war America the introduction of television was first and foremost apprehended as the harbinger of social progress and democratization. Optimists hoped that as television diffused through America, this new medium would make cultural and scientific knowledge readily available to the coming generation. Hope was especially strong among progressive educators who believed that television"s "window unto the world" would provide the next generation with a universal access to knowledge and culture. And in many ways it did. At the vortex of a burgeoning consumer culture, television became the preferred source of entertainment and information for all sectors of the population – but especially loved by children for its up beat visual story-telling.

As the onslaught of commercialized "low brow" popular entertainments flooded the airwaves, the progressives dream of an educated citizenship dissolved into an anxious fretting about the crisis of socialization in the modern world (David Reisman, 1952). Although public controversies about socialization have been traced back to Plato"s suggestion that teaching the written word would undermine children"s memory, these debates entered the mainstream of American media during the 1950"s. Did TV provide early access to the wisdom, acting as a cultural treasury for the nation or did it produce a generation of ignorant couch potatoes? Given the crucial symbolic space that childhood occupies in western cultures, and the conflicted perspective on childrearing in America after the war, it is hardly surprising that children"s fascination with TV was viewed with both optimism and horror too, not only by social theorists, but by the public at large (Spigal 1997). The public debates about children"s mediated culture became a regularly contested zone of "social regulation" after the war, that grew ever more controversial with children"s growing enthusiasm for it.

So shortly after its introduction, children"s television became the flashpoint of a protracted political struggle over post-war values and lifestyles. At the centre of this controversy was the question of television"s impact on children. Some alarmist commentators proclaimed that a "generation gap" was dividing America, and sought easy answers to the degradation of American civic culture byblaming it all on the mass media and the rise of popular culture.(Rosenberg et al. 1954) Did not children need to be protected from exploitation in the mass mediated cultures in the same way that 19th Century advocates protected children from abuses in factories and the family? As Kirsten Drotner comments "Children and young people are prime objects of "media panics" not merely because they are often media pioneers; not merely because they challenge social and cultural power relations, nor because they symbolize ideological rifts. They are panic targets just as much because they inevitably represent experiences and emotions that are irrevocably lost to adults." (1992: 59). Television seemed to represent the unstoppable force of cultural massification that separated the lives of post-war generations from their parents.

To understand our contemporary world demanded a new way of thinking about the media"s impact on socialization argued media guru Marshall McLuhan in his profoundly confusing but prescient,Understanding Media (1961). In this Age of Anxiety McLuhan declared, the controversies over tastes and popular culture arise from the deeper disturbances created by electronic media within our social values and cultural sensibilities. Pointing out limitations in Wilbur Schramms" study of children"s use of televisionwhich found no effectsMcLuhan argued that psychologists often failed to measure the underlying processes that linked the mass media to profound traumas of our age (pg 33). In his view the debates about children"s media presaged the way children"s cultural sensibilities and values were being reconstructed in the post-literate retribalizing global village.

McLuhan clarified his most famous aphorism, the medium is the message, by explaining that theorists would fail to comprehend the changes taking place in mass society without "understanding media as environments" in which cultural dynamics contend and interact. McLuhan"s probes into media cultures suggested paradoxically, that television would both enhance and subvert the values of our literate society. This implied that the impacts of media cannot be understood independent of the social system in which they are implemented and used. Although it can be said of McLuhan that by half of what he said he meant something else, while in the other half he meant nothing at all his work made media analysis an increasingly important part of the study of socio-cultural change: writers from Postman and Toffler to Baudrillard paid tribute to McLuhan in their own prognosis for late industrial society. The study of the media"s impact is now too diverse and too contentious to summarize here. But at its centre, the debate about media saturated childhood never abated.

Against a backdrop of fifty years of public controversy concerning children"s use of violent entertainment, a group of 33 cultural studies scholars have become supporters of the video game industry in its battle against media censorship. They have dismissed the concerns of children"s advocates about media violence as just another media panic, saying there is no proof of the "effects" hypothesis. This paper examines the political and methodological issues implied in this claim that media have no psychological and cultural impact on children, suggesting that this highly politicized media controversy is proof that media have profoundly impacted not only children"s culture, but the popular discourses on and the politics of childhood.

Moral Kombat: Media Theory in the Age of Anxiety?

The introduction of television occurred at the very moment that America was in the throws of traumatic social change. The baby boom generation – the first post war TV cohort – was already regarded anxiously by the American public, preoccupied as it was, about impending moral decline, breakdown of the family, the problems of education, and rising tide of youth violence after the war. Of course war, violence and crime are issues that plague primitive and modern nations alike. All societies, must develop both legal and cultural mechanisms for control of the ever present sources of social conflict and threat of anti-social behavior. Yet there was a perplexing paradox at the heart of Americans attitudes to the use of force: As a right of self defense and guarantor of economic expansionism, Americans had long prided their military prowess, celebrating in popular culture heroic males imbued with bravado and guns.

Although crime has long been a prominent public concern in the USA throughout its history, after the second world war, rising youth crime rates placed the socialization of aggressive on the front pages. Sociologists interested in crime and antisocial behaviour in America framed violence as a generational phenomenon associated with juvenile delinquency (Becker 1961) – fearing the moral mechanisms and norms that had maintained public order in the past had been eroded in the post-war generation (Goodman 1956, Reisman 1952). As a perceived threat to law and order in our communities, aggression and crime are the lifeblood of contemporary journalism, for they manifest concretely the social forces undermining civil society—the symptoms of a rampant sickness of an otherwise democratic culture.

The media"s growing role in the intensifying anxiety about youth delinquency and generational conflicts was itself formalized into an analysis of cultural regulation by sociologist Stanely Cohen (1972). 'Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic" he wrote. Cohen suggested that the media"s labelling of youth counter-culture movements as "deviant" was the first step in a discursive process of social control. His book drew a parallel between the hyped up media coverage of the mods and rockers and anthropological accounts of collective social phenomenon like witch hunts, inquisitions, public hangings which were also propelled into hysteria on a wave of public anxiety. His book documents a general process underlying these panics: "A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion.......;the moral barricades are manned......; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.' (Cohen 1972, 9)

Panic is the quasi- social psychological term which Cohen uses to characterize the "sudden and overwhelming fear or anxiety" which seizes public discourses. The word panic itself derives from the god Pan who the Greeks imagined unleashed the powers of irrational fear. So too, argued Cohen, public anxiety fed by news reportage which was governed more by false accusations and hysteria, than a reasoned concern with impartiality, prompted a social control discourse mobilizing an strong reaction within the justice community and those sensitive to threats to the moral order. As experts were called in to explain the threat, youth cultures were interpreted as deviant, and a threat to the whole social order..

Cohen"s media analysis of the language of panic during the mods and rockers conflicts emphasized the media"s role in both the interpretation and prompting of a broader societal reaction. The journalists didn"t create these anxiety attacks of course, but Cohen believed that media were responsible for the amplification of anxiety which led to calls to control youthful opposition to the normative order. The same he said could be said for the media coverage of youth drugs, hair styles, and rock and roll. Cohen felt this process of panic amplification amounts to a hysterical over-reaction – an "irrational" response to a magnified threat of violent disruption. Cohen was concerned that the social anxieties prompted about youth culture, was actually a new form of ideological social control of working class sub-cultures.

Cohen"s theory of moral panic was therefore picked up by British Cultural Studies as one of the pillars of their theorization of subculture as resistive movements of the working class youth. The term media panic became widely used to describe the various public over-reactions to counter-culture tastes and youth pleasures – whether it be swastikas, reggae rhythms, rap lyrics, gay lifestyles, raves or playing Carmaggedon. Cultural studies scholars imagined themselves on the side of liberating youth from the oppressive censorship of their attempts to appropriate culture. In this sense they became defenders of the youth oriented sectors of the cultural industries, arguing that violence was simply a manifestation of youths rejection of bourgeois taste.

Media Affect

Because of the seeming link between endless symbolic killings, rising crime rates, and disobedient children, academics have from the beginning of the 20th century debated the contribution of popular culture to issues like delinquency and disruptive youth behaviour. But the scholarly debates about the anti-social behavior of the television generation grew load enough that they echoed through the corridors of power: increasingly scientific researchers and psychologists were drawn into the ever expanding controversy over media effects. For example, giving testimony at the Kefauver inquiry (1954), Paul Lazarsfeld claimed, there simply wasn"t sufficient scientific research to determine the impact of TV violence on children. In the angst filled days of the cold war, more and more psychologists set out to address the question in their laboratories. Prompted by repeated instances of spectacular youth violence (the Charles Manson killings for example) the study of media violence and its effects moved out of the labs as it became the central question of media effects research. (Huston et. al. 1992) Anyone interested in this topic must now confront shelves of books, studies and reports pertinent to the impact of media on children"s learning of aggressive and anti-social behavior. This literature is not only substantial, but varied in perspective and conclusions. The majority of it, as the Psychological and Pedaediatrics Society (2001) and Surgeon General"s (2000) review all conclude, although effects are small and difficult to specify, they are significant for some children in some circumstances. Yet from the 1980"s onward, others broke rank and rejected this growing concern about television"s impact on anti-social behavior. These critics argued that the evidence of televisions impact was being blown out of proportion (McGuire 1986, Freedman 1984) It is foolish therefore, to attribute to television all the social disturbances encountered in American postmodern culture to television. (Fowles 1999). Besides which, its guns that kill people and not TV, argued Todd Gitlin (1995): so if a solution is to be found to America"s high youth homicide rates, then it should be through gun control and social welfare policy, and not through censorship.

In Britain too, in the wake of the Jamie Bulger murders, the question of media violence moved to centre stage too as psychologists anxiously pointed to television to explain the seeming crisis in contemporary childhood. Children"s advocacy groups rose up and calling once again for regulation of media violence. A group of British cultural studies scholars took offence, and reinterpreted Stanley Cohen"s account of "moral panic" to attack on the very idea that media effect children. Against the threatened censorship of children"s culture, these scholars ridiculed the abreaction of those that were "panicked" by this brutal act. They also challenged the validity of the scientific evidence which "proves" media effects, and called into question the motives of those social scientists which supports the social regulation of media violence. Their objections were to both the assumptions about well-being, and normal development implied by psychology, and to the science they used to justify it. Guy Cumberbatch for example, scoffed at the underlying moralism of these child protectors who forgot their own youthful resistances, and wrongly laid the blame on the media. He equated their claims with earlier generations of censorious prudes who have sought to protect children from the evil influences of idleness, comics, or video nasties and to sanitize children"s media. (Cumberbatch, 1993). So what if children were fascinated with mature and adult themes? The importance of popular media within children"s cultural is itself evidence that media provide a discursive zone that children recognize and talk about as their own – and wherein they meet their own needs.

David Buckingham, too asserted that not only are the anxieties misplaced, but that the effects researchers have failed to respect children" genuine quest for more varied and less conventional forms of re-creation and amusement. TV is after all only story-telling, a fantasy resource which children choose willingly, and accordingly should be a matter of "taste" and not regulation. However ribald and aggressive popular cultural products are, what children watched reflected their own values, tastes and needs. Psychological theories of media effects simply failed to understand the robustness of children"s culture he argued, or acknowledge that children are active and savvy audiences who can tell the difference between fictional violence and news, play and reality -- even if their parents can"t. (Buckingham 1997). Buckingham goes on to critique both the bourgeois elite who programmed and regulated children"s television, and media effects academics who studied it, as if children were helpless victims of the media. "Ultimately, there is a denial of children"s agency at the heart of this approach; and these criticisms apply just as much to more apparently "critical" research about the effects of advertising or consumer culture as they do to research about media violence." (2001). They advised adults to lighten up a bit, preferring to grant to children"s cultural industries more autonomy to serve their child audiences free from the invasive interference of the moralizers. At least the commercial producers didn"t talk down to them in nannyish tones of bland traditionalism.

David Buckingham also noted the cultural studies opposition to the science underlying the claims about effects:

"The media effects industry is, of course, largely driven by moral and political panics about the harmful influence of media on children. Within Cultural Studies, there is a long tradition of damning this work, not just as positivist and empiricist, but also for conceiving of children (and audiences generally) as merely passive victims of the media."

He is referring to a collection of essays edited by Barker and Petley which called for an end to the panic becausethere are no "ill effects" of media violence . The evidence that childhood is in crisis, or that TV influences aggression is weak and based on mindless positivistic effects theory that fails on close examination to demonstrate that media are to blame, they claim. Youth crime rates and violence are falling, even in the USA, as the use of computer games increases. (David Gauntlet, 2002). Based on these arguments cultural studies scholars dismiss the fifty year long study of media effects as moral panic rather than a scientific theory. They argue that a cultural studies perspective can see through the media panic by recognizing the diversity of media representations, that audiences actively seek pleasure in interpreting conflict, and especially that young people possess the ability to distinguish real violence from fictional conflict.

Barker and Petley"s book dismisses the whole effects project on the grounds that psychologists are asking the wrong questions and using the wrong methods. In so doing they assert the superiority of their culturalist perspective over those deterministic psychologists, educators and sociologists that narrowly study only the media"s effects on children. The public"s fears arise from their reactionary traditional values and not fromreal effects of media. (Barker and Petley: Ill Effects 2002). Citing scientific critiques of the effects science they argue that a varied diet of popular entertainment has never been shown to be harmful to children. So the moralizing claims of the effects brigade is not only "false and misleading" but also "daft" and "mischievous". It is false because there is "no such thing as violence in the media" which can have either harmful or beneficial effects" in the first place. Mischievous because culturalist scholars believed the "alarmism" precipitated by "effects science" contributes to public censorship of children"s culture by pumping up the anxiety of parents.

Politics of Digital Panic in America

Given evidence of children"s' avid domestic use of video games and the internet for accessing violent content -- it is not surprising that the question of the new media"s impact on youth aggression added to the growing controversy over children as "consumers /audiences/users" of media (Livingstone 2002). Especially since 1992 as fighting video games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Doom first hit the market, digital media too began to feature prominently in the public battles over children"s media saturated lives. In this changing media environment, public anxieties began shifting from the TV and films to digital entertainment. Yet in America, the media producers have long opposed encroaching government regulation: rallying under the twin flags of freedom of expression and corporate responsibility they have worked hard to mollify parental concerns. Under the threat of regulation by Congress, the video game industry protected itself by putting on the mantle of self regulation: they developed an age related code similar to that for films, and a body called the ESRB which classified games according to their violent and anti-social themes.

But the regulatory pressure returned when a particularly nasty school massacre at Jonesboro, brought the issue of media violence back to the front pages: America seemed to once again be in the throws of media panic. On the screen children"s advocates were blaming, drugs, parents, families teachers and of course video games for the rise of school shootings. Perhaps not coincidentally Jonesboro was also the place where Dr. Dave Grossman author ofOn Killing (1995) and a leading critic of violent video games had retired. Grossman had been a lieutenant colonel who had built a career figuring out how to train soldiers to kill. As a retired US army officer, Grossman seems well positioned to comment on the similarity between the tactics used in the army to train soldiers and they use of violent video games among children today. The US military has long used simulation training for its soldiers because the "repetition and desensitization" of simulated killing effects kill rates (the actual percentage of soldiers that will pull the trigger in real life combat). Recently he has become a leading US advocate of restraining the American entertainment industries arguing that "the main concern is that these violent video games are providing military quality training to children". Like the training of these soldiers, Grossman believes that violent video games may have a similar effect on young people who play them a lot, not because they create models or templates for children"s behaviour, but because they help break down the psychological barriers that prevent killing: "children don"t naturally kill; they learn it from violence in the home and…from violence as entertainment in television, movies and interactive video games". Grossman has persuaded many Americans once again that its time to do something about the "virus of violence" infecting America resulting in renewed calls to regulate video game violence just as it had film and TV.

After Littleton, Congress was prodded by the growing public outcry to hold new hearings on media violence. Grossman expressed his strong views to the committee. So too did a number of psychologists summarized the scientific evidence proving video games were harmful. The ISDA president submitted the industries view that video games did no harm to children. In the course of these hearings Jeffrey Goldstein Funk and Anderson"s all offered their expert opinions on whether video games effects on children"s behavior have been proven.

Headed to Washington to testify too, cultural studies scholar Henry Jenkins feared that the scientific debate had turned into a right wing witch hunt mobilized by a deep fear about young people which is intensifying the surveillance and monitoring of children"s behavior. Jenkins articulated for the committee the cultural studies scholars opposition to the effects research tradition, ridiculing those researchers who study media violence in laboratories by counting how many times a child hits a bobo doll. He articulated cultural studies argument that social science was not only misleading, but exaggerated maliciously to scare the trusting public into accepting more regulation of children"s media: lambasting the social science critiques he argues that their research evidence is not strong or consistent enough to sustain their attack on the media industries. Is it not far better to recognize that the roots of aggressive behavior lie with dysfunctional families, drugs and impoverished communities, more than media violence.

Jenkins rejects the simplistic media effects model arguing that rather than harm, media provide children with a rich cultural "resource" that they explore and interpret in their own way. Moreover, it is wrong to expect the imaginary worlds of children"s media to conform to parental ideas about morality and order. And in a society traumatized by rapid social change parents had been gulled into panic by the coalition of right wing moralizers and effects psychology: "Suddenly, we are finding ourselves in a national witch hunt to determine which form of popular culture is to blame for the mass murders and video games seemed like a better candidate than most" he says. Jenkins rebuffs the growing hysteria about video game violence arguing: "We are afraid of our children. We are afraid of their reactions to digital media. And we suddenly can"t avoid either". Eliminating violence from the screens will have absolutely no impact on aggressive and antisocial behavior he argued.

Welcome to the Risk Society

Afraid of our children or for them? In the 1970"s, the growing awareness of unforeseen social and environmental disruptions associated with post-industrial life generated a growing sense of crisis. Ulrich Beck"s theorization of the "risk society" made the emerging politics of anxiety into a critical sociology of modernization. Beck"s critique exposed both the complexity of the global environmental crisis and the limits of contemporary sciences to deal with the new technological risks produced by modernization. Anthony Giddens (1994) added to Beck"s critique of state and corporate mandated sciences, the obvious corollary that the market had become the paramount system for distributing both well-being and risks. Giddens' account of the politics of risk therefore highlights the problems of identity construction and life management that confront contemporary consumers. In the risk society, science is not just narrowly politicized but essential to the whole citizenry of modernizing nations for their survival. In the shadow of terrorism, tormented by global strife, plagued by a post-bubble economic recession and facing a burgeoning environmental crisis, the understanding of risk sciences have become essential to ordinary citizens pondering the complex tradeoffs they must make between the anticipated social benefits and threatened perils associated with the modern ways of life. The crisis of modernity, therefore is also witnessed in the public anxiety and confusion as consumer-citizens are required to manage their daily lives in the face of increasingly complex scientific discourses on risks and benefits of contemporary lifestyles.

In the context of this theory of a risk society, moral panics about youth violence appear to be only one of the many modernization anxieties. Anxiety pervades most aspects of youth lifestyle choice from fast food to pokemon – leaving parents hard pressed to do their best for their children in an increasingly complex world. Unfortunately, those interested in risk society are only beginning to pay attention to the role that mass media play in the politics of anxiety within risk society (Ferudi 1997). Cohen"s theory of moral panic can therefore be read as an instructive case study of the role that media play in the political dynamics of the risk society. Cohen"s account highlights the medias role in the distribution of information, in the sensitization of public opinion, in the dynamics of attribution of cause and blame, and their consequences for social control of the threat. As Cohen"s case study so clearly illustrated media do play an important role in setting the moral agenda and mobilizing the publics reactions to youthful disruption of social order. It is ironic therefore that the critics deny evidence of media effects – and in so doing ignore the journalisms role in the amplification of media panics.

Given journalisms position within the commercial media system it is hardly surprising that dramatic news stories involving sex, violence and crime feature prominently in our media. (Sorenson, S. B., Peterson Manz, J. G., Berk, R. A. (1998).2 These researchers investigated the degree to which newspaper stories about homicide correspond to actual patterns of homicide victimization" finding that "although homicide constitutes the least common form of crime, it receives the largest share of television and newspaper coverage of crime" (p. 1510). In another recent study, Maguire, B., Weatherby, G. A., & Mathers, R. A. (2002)3 suggest that "that news coverage of crime tends to be driven by the tenet, "If it bleeds, it leads" and that media coverage of news is characterized by a "herd mentality."

Close examination of the coverage of journalistic coverage of youth violence in America, indicate that the anxieties may arise from sensationalistic news values, more than it does from the balanced accounts of crime. For example Dorfman, L., Woodruff, K., Chavez, V., & Wallack, L. (1997).4undertook a content analysis of 214 hours of local television news from California. They found that for 1721 stories that violence dominated local television news coverage of youth, that over half of the stories on youth involved violence, while more than two thirds of the violence stories concerned youth. The episodic coverage of violence was five times more frequent than thematic coverage, which means that references to any links to broader social factors, or causes including media, are rare.

Although I think they wrongly blame the mischievous "effects researchers" for precipitating the media panic, these culturalist critics have raised a number of interesting questions about the role of media in the public perception of risks to children. So do these scientific discourses actually galvanize the media into a frenzy? It is hard for me to believe in the light of those content analysis of violence news that the scientific debates about media violence play much of a role in the panic coverage, other than consolidating already established opinion of the journalists.Have the journalists covered the scientific debates fairly? As Murray (2001) suggests, rather than feeding a media panic, American news reporting of the scientific findingshave consistently understated the evidence of risks. Perhaps because the media industry has something at stake, or perhaps because they apply a simplistic and non-scientific understanding of research evidence which fails to contextualize it, they often air on the side of caution when reporting science and sensationalism when reporting crime. If so perhaps the cultural studies scholars should be putting the blame for panic on the shoulders of the journalists and not the effects researchers.

So does this overblown news coverage scare parents into blaming the media? It is fair to say that many parents are troubled by their children"s use of media. Lets face it, parents have always been worried about their kids: we are raising our children in a risk society after all.Do they blame media more now than before? I doubt it. Surveys show that many parents agree that media are partly to blame for violence in society (65%): Yet, the percentage of parents that think media are the main cause is as low as 10%. So the public seems sensible in this case: they believe that media may be one of the contributing factors in the socialization of aggression, but certainly not the only one. Moreover, they have more than media to ground their anxieties: From our interviews conducted with mothers of young boys, I found their concerns about "boy culture" are based both on ideology and experience of childrearing as much as news. (Kline 2000) As parents watched their children using popular media in the nursery schools and fantasy play at home , many became convinced that TV and video games did contributed to some children"s aggression, and particularly to the problems their youngsters experienced in the playgrounds. So do kids. Recent surveys show they too believe that media are addictive, harmful to some, and that their younger siblings should not be exposed to sex and violence. (Kline 2001)

In fact, in the introduction to a later edition of his book Cohen (1987) rejected the appropriation of his study of moral panic by cultural studies to counter all concerns about violence and anti-social behaviour among youth. These scholars, he felt, were in danger of reducing his complex discussion of class conflict to matters of taste and style. It"s original intent was simply to de-legitimate the interpretation of working class youth movements as deviations from bourgeois norms and to reveal how reactionary forces mobilized around media panics in response to them. Cohen was aware that media panic mobilized all social agencies with a stake in the youth culture issues: some progressive and some less so. He noted that the public struggle over youth violence and anti-social behaviour, increasingly aligned the cultural industries with youth counter culture movements that used their products: This is what Cohen refers to as the exploitation of panic – which in his mind included both the justice system and the commercial enterprises that can profit from youth subcultures who began to assert their own interests. And Cohen was right: for nowhere is this mobilization more in evidence than in the media industries: Faced with public outcry industry representatives have increasingly intervened at the public hearings, in community enquiries, in the courts, in the legislatures and the scientific arena"s – where-ever the effects of violent media were being debated.

Disciplinary Powers: Panic Theory Goes to Court

An example is the contested St. Louis ordinance which would restrict the sale of violent video games to children.5 A similar ordinance had been successfully defeated in Minneapolis when the ISDA convinced the judge to declare that since violence has been part of children"s literature throughout history that it "would not only be quixotic, but deforming to shield children from the very graphic violence in new media like television and video games." Needless to say, the ISDA intervened again in St. Louis to prevent legislated restrictions on the sale of video games to children there. What is different in this instance, is that the ISDA have now been willingly assisted by some academic friends of the court – including prominent cultural studies scholars Henry Jenkins, Jib Fowles, Todd Gitlin, and David Buckingham – who have taken up the cudgel against a local community whose elected officials are trying to place legal restrictions on the sale of violent and horrific media products to children (to whom the industry itself claims not to be selling them).

These Amici curiae acknowledge that "the relationship between entertainment and human behavior is multi-faced and complex". But in their brief, they protest that the St. Louis County Council"s Ordinance implicitly relied on simplistic "assumption that video games containing graphic violence cause violent behavior". Their submission is intended therefore to "assist the court in understanding the media effects debate" because they fear that the courts have unwittingly succumbed to the "commonly held but mistaken beliefs about a proven causative link between violent entertainment and violent behavior to uphold a censorship law." In what follows I want to contest the cultural studies scholars completerefusal of the proof offered by the media effects scientists.


It remains unclear to what extent the Minnesota judge ruled against this so-calledcensorship ordinance on the assumption of proof of harmful effects of video games. Yet the Amici worry that the St. Louis court will believe that the "effects hypothesis" is proven on the basis of Dr. Craig Anderson"s testimony of the scientific evidence. Anderson "s review summarized both his own views, as well as the scientific opinion expressed by other psychologists and sociologists who have been researching media effects for fifty years both in the laboratory and in the field (Anderson and Bushman Murray, Paik and Comstock etc.). The OED states that a modern science is " a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws and which includes trust worthy methods for the discovery of new truths within its own domain" OED. This definition rightly describes science as a discursive social body of knowledge which is methodologically disciplined by two specific rules of evidence. The first rule concerns empiricism: the hypotheses must be demonstrated by gathering and evaluating evidence. The second criteria is that science establishes "trustworthy methods" to ensure that evidence can be agreed upon by the community of scientists who evaluate each others findings (Schroder et al. Forthcoming). In this sense a science never proves anything. The evaluation of scientific evidence always hinges on the rejection of a "null hypothesis" represented by the proposition that there are "no effects". One never proves significant effects, but rather finds reasons to reject the no-effects proposition. A science therefore is nothing more than a self-regulating debate among scientists about the best explanation of observed events. But in a risk society, science politics is governed by what Tinsdale calls the Panglossian principle: Unless it can be categorically demonstrated that something is wrong, we will assume that all is well" which means that "the burden of proof is with those trying to prove that there is a risk" (1998:59) This imposes legal rules of evidence on scientific debate, that current practice of risk is assumed innocent until proven guilty. It may be a small point, but by overlooking this fundamental epistemological point the Amici are revealing their deep hostility the scientific method and its underlying procedures for discussing the weight of evidence.

The Amici"s submission contends that the weight of evidence has not supported the assumption of a causal relationship. They do so by citing scientific views of psychologists like Kevin Durkin, Mallory Wober, Jeffrey Goldstein, Mark Griffith and Jonathon Freedman which in their view suggest that experimental studies have not in fact proved "adverse effects" from playing video games; that the positive results are small, that the measures of aggression used are "dubious", and that ultimately the effects researchers have failed to prove that violent entertainment "causes – or is even a risk factor for actual violent behavior".

Questioning the Evidence

The Amici are right when they call into question the validity of psychological research into the relationship between media violence and aggression / anti-social behavior. Although trained as a psychologist I too find this literature both confusing and frustrating to read because of the very different ways its key constructs, "media violence" and "aggressive behavior", have been defined and operationalized. Does watching a killing mean the same thing when it is situated within a cartoon, a news story or a horror video? Does aggressive behaviors refer to hitting and fighting, to bullying verbal taunts, to feelings of hostility, or to our moral attitudes expectations and responses in social situations of power? Moreover the design of laboratory experiments with a 10 minute exposure to a violent scene or studies of undergraduates in lecture halls are particularly suspect as explorations of these complex processes.

Goldstein (1999) maintains that all these studies show is that boys enjoy playing in and watching action adventure fantasies. Since male aggression is so deeply embedded in contemporary culture, correlations are best explained by the tendency of those predisposed to aggression watching more violent TV. Unless experiments show consistently, that after watching or playing a violent programme or playing a murderous video game (the stimulus), a significant number of children jump up and kick or hit another child (the response), the researchers cannot claim there is an effect on behavior. Since many experiments in the effects literature are faulted, there is no reliable evidence to prove the causal hypothesis over and above this male fascination (Goldstein 2002).

Insofar as Goldstein is pointing out the inconsistent frameworks, dubious findings and methodological short-comings of the behavioral psychology literature on video gaming, particularly the experimental studies conducted in labs on space invaders, I can only agree with his doubts : many of the video game studies are so badly designed that one wonders why they are still being discussed. Goldstein also criticizes the research for only showing that video games at most, influence the way children talk and play: Since boys are also more likely to engage in both playful and hurtful aggression it cannot be claimed that video games cause that behavior. But can lab experiments ever find evidence that by changing the way children play media contribute indirectly to their aggressive attitudes and actions.

Yet the Amici intimate that most reviewers of the video game literature agree with Durkin, Wober and Goldstein that there is no evidence of effects in the video game research reviews. My own reading of Griffiths (1999) review is rather different than the Amici"s. Like Goldstein, he is of course scathing about the design and measurement issues plaguing the video game literature: "all the published studies on video game violence have methodological problems and that they only include possible short-term measures of aggressive consequences". Griffith is concerned about lumping together cartoon like violence and more realistic games (as in TV shows) and also between games where conflict is competitive hostility (sports or racing) as opposed to aggressive contest (fighting, shooting). There is therefore "a need for a general taxonomy of video games as it could be the case that particular games have very positive effects while other types are not so positive". I totally agree: of the 25 or so studies, at least half are out of date: experimental comparisons of playing Space Invaders for 10 minutes can provide no insight into the consequences of playing Soldier of Fortune for 10 hours a week in the course of one year. (Kline 2001)

Yet Griffith goes on to say that "one consistent finding is that the majority of the studies on very young children – as opposed to those in their teens upwards-tend to show that children do become more aggressive after either playing or watching a violent video game" when the research observes children"s "free play". Although there are too few studies to saywith confidence how much video games contribute to aggressive play and antisocial behaviours in the long run. (1999: 210) Which is why Griffith concludes his review: "the question of whether video games promote aggressiveness cannot be answered at the present because the available literature is relatively sparse and conflicting, and there are many different types of video games which probably have different effects". That is entirely reasonable given the dearth of studies. First person shooter games and those which feature extremely graphic violence (Soldier of Fortune) have not been around long enough for longitudinal research, to have properly identified the risks to very young children associated with playing them regularly over the years.

Yet Griffith has been convinced that video games can have both positive and negative consequences for children"s learning: "If care is taken in the design, and if games are put in the right context, they have the potential to be used as training aids in classrooms and therapeutic settings, and to provide skills in psychomotor coordination in simulations of real life events, for example, training recruits for the armed forces". (1999) In short he believes their effectiveness as learning environments has been demonstrated, but not precisely enough to specify the consequences of playing a particular game on different kinds of children. Pace David Grossman. Isn"t that exactly what he is saying. And is that what Anderson means when he suggests that"video games provide a complete learning environment for aggression".Maybe in another 20 years we will have the proof that video games supplement TV as environments for learning aggressive attitudes and weapons skills, but should legislation await the proof of specific harms done by specific games? In most risk controversies, we adopt the precautionary principle. Do we only ban a drug after its side effects have killed someone?

Whose Hypothesis?

Because their submission relies so heavily on Jonathon Freedman"s (2002) recent book length review of the media effects literature I will discuss it at length. Freedman argues forcefully both that the amount of research has been exaggerated and that the evidence proving effects has been overstated. His arguments are substantial, complex and methodologically cautious. In their reviews, both Freedman and Goldstein acknowledge that there is adequate evidence to say that relationship exists between preferences for violent entertainment and aggression. This relationship they say at best explains 10% of the variance of aggressive behavior. But they don"t accept that there is proof that video games do any harm. Both maintain that without experimental proof, correlations found in the literature tell us "absolutely" nothing about causal relations.

Freedman, like Goldstein is psychologist who is familiar with the enormous difficulties and expense of good psychological research. Yet I still have deep concerns about the way Freedman evaluates the weight of scientific evidence about the relationship between violent entertainment and anti-social behaviour. Having just read much of this literature, I disagree with the criteria for proof he establishes, the kinds of evidence he excludes, and the way he accounts for each studies relative contribution to understanding the relationship between violent entertainment and aggression .

Firstly Freedman assumes that there is only one kind of proof of the causal hypothesis namely that children watching more violent entertainment should be predisposed to acting aggressively. Although the question of direct stimulation or imitation of violent media did dominate the research paradigm early on, the thinking in this field abandoned behaviorism for a more complex social learning approach during the 1960"s. In fact, I can"t think of many researchers who have pursued such a simplistic version of the causal hypothesis , at least since Bandura"s bobo doll experiments. This is what I object to most in this assessment of proof: Freedman"s imposition of behaviorist criteria of a direct causal relationship between media representations and aggressive behaviors as the benchmark.

Most contemporary psychologists do not theorize aggression as a direct imitation of the programme but as a learned social behavior that becomes enacted by individuals in different situations which have implicit rules and sanctions. Psychologists know that there are many things besides media which also contribute to children"s learning about conflict and the role of aggression in social relations. Personal experience, peer relations, identification with role models, intelligence, sex roles, and parenting styles are obviously important factors in the development of social skills and aggressive dispositions. The propensity to act aggressively therefore will vary across individuals depending on their experience and circumstances, their peer relations, and communities. But many also believe that media representations of conflict and interpersonal aggression can make a contribution to the cumulative formation of those mental constructs and representations which prevent or privilege aggressive behavior. What is learned from media will depend on children"s interest in, patterns of use, identification with and interpretation of the violent narratives.

Unfortunately, Freedman ignores the actual hypotheses of investigators like Bandura, Stein and Huessman and evaluates their conclusions according to his own simplistic causal hypothesis. For example his behaviorist criteria leads him to dismiss all evidence of intervening and interacting processes involved in the medias role in the development of aggression. He is particularly derisive of the experimental Bobo doll studies because he claims that hitting one is "not a measure of real aggression". So he dismisses all studies which show watching violence can influence either their social preferences for toys, to their attitudes or play. But if watching WWF leads some boys or girls to play more aggressively, and if, peer groups that engage in aggressive play establish norms that accept bullying and teasing, then it seems reasonable to study play as an intervening variable. Freedman would say that this study provides no evidence for a direct causal relationship.

Their interest in the mechanisms of learning lead many researchers to use indirect measures of the effects of violent programming. Take for example, Bandura"s (1963) study. Is it correct to read this as a test of the causal hypothesis that media violence causes aggression , or as Bandura proposes, as a study of the mechanisms of observational learning through which children imitate adult models, whether they are on television or not. As he points out peer aggression is not that frequent; and certainly less likely in adult supervised situations like the nursery school environments these studies were conducted . It makes sense to use a measure that reflects the learning rather than the aggression. Hitting of the Bobo doll is never interpreted by Bandura as a measure of aggression per se. Rather the hitting of Bobo indicates the degree to which the child, having observed the particular pattern of modeled behavior, incorporate that behavioral construct into their play routines.

Secondly, in doing so Freedman dismisses all arguments about intervening or mitigating variables moderating psychologists expectations of universal effects of violent entertainment on all children. We know aggressive and anti-social behavior is not distributed equally in populations, differing between genders, between classes, and educational levels. Aggression and crime rates vary depending upon the family background, peer experience and community the child grows up in. It is not far fetched to think that media use interacts with these situational sociological factors such as family regulation of media use, in contributing to the learning of aggressive and anti-social behaviour in children and youth.In longitudinal field research it is especially important to control for these interaction effects because we have evidence that family background, preferences, interests and social circumstance which shape both the preferential patterns of TV viewing and potentially contribute to the media"s impact on at risk children.

Although Freedman acknowledges that naturalistic experiments and longitudinal research should provide some of the most convincing evidence of effects, his simplistic reading of their results finds they don"t. But this conclusion depends on how you add up the weight of evidence: For example, he sometimes tallies each condition in the research design asa separate test of the behavioral hypothesis, as if all research is designed to prove whether media violence directly causes aggressive behaviors in all children in all situations. Knowing that real aggression is a rare event in the nursery school, Stein and Freidrich (1973) decided to observe the gamut of aggressive behaviour including threats, taunts and playful tussling as well as hitting as indicators of the differential learning from a diet of violent, neutral and pro-social programmes. Freedman counts this classic study as two failures because the researchers failed to demonstrate a significant difference on the behavioral level between both neutral and pro-social treatments and aggressive behavior. It"s a bit more complex than that.

It does take a rather complex analysis to tease out the mechanisms involved in the children"s differential assimilation of these three media diets which is why this study is regarded as a classic. But does Stein and Freidrich"s finding that it is only once we control for aggressive predisposition and preferences for violent or anti-social media at home that we can understand the aggression, lead us to reject or refine the effects hypothesis. I certainly wouldn"t discard this "hypothesis" when so many studies reveal that TV can effect children"s learning as registered in children"s language and play. Nor is it insignificant to find that the effects of the cartoon aggression diet are only found in boys once we control for aggressive predisposition and what they watch at home as well. The reason these researcher constructed three treatments and employed multiple measures was not because they expect every one to be different, but rather to help them explore the various mechanisms of learning mediating the acquisition of social behavior including cooperation as well as conflict. As Stein and Freidrich explain, children"s intelligence and aggressive dispositions, their family backgrounds and ways of orienting to television, as well as the children"s social skills all interact with patterned media use, and its expected effects.

For example, Freedman also argues that Milavsky" et. als longitudinal study which revealed that preferences for violent programming in childhood predicted subsequent aggressive behavior can"t be included as evidence. He rejects this finding by pointing out that a preference for violent media is not the same as exposure to it. Unless you measure actual exposure (stimulus) the evidence must be doubted. So if the study provides some evidence of some other intervening factors, he considers it as lessening the weight of empirical evidence. This is like arguing that preferences for cigarettes don"t kill people only cigarettes can. Yet enjoying cigarettes is part of the process of developing a patterned use of cigarettes – an aspect and indicator of the psychological process that contributes ultimately to higher rates of cancer. There will be some people who once smoked , liked to smoke , but no longer do, who might respond to a questionnaire that they have a preference for cigarettes, but this is hardly reason to discard sound evidence of a relationship between preferences and health outcomes. Moreover, in the case of both cigarettes and violent entertainment the fact that some forms a strong preference for the activity, implying enjoyment and pleasure, might be an important difference in the pattern of use. For example the smoker who enjoys a cigarette may take deeper guilt free puffs, and the boy who plays Duke Nukem, may enjoy the sexist connotations in ways that a girl doesn"t.

Although Freedman agrees that field studies have provided the most interesting evidence concerning the effects hypothesis: Yet by ignoring explanations based on intervening variables, he has discounted much of what we know about television as a learning environment for aggression. For example, he discounts Heusmann"s (1986) finding about identification with violent heroes because it is not uniformly related to subsequent increases in aggression scores for all subjects in all nations. Not only are the findings weak and inconsistent for genders he argues, but also the results from Holland and Finland failed to produce the same increasing correlations as the American results, and only for girls.

I have some knowledge of the kinds of programs that the American kids saw, but little of the kinds of violent programmes broadcast or family practices of Holland, Finland, Poland or even Israel to watch with the same frequency and duration please let me know. It is not unreasonable to suspect that developing preferences for violent programmes with action hero characters, might be part of a patterned use of violent entertainment that can contribute to the socialization of aggressive and antisocial children, in some cases. The evidence from these longitudinal studies is modest but not vanishingly so. Given the range of circumstances children grow up in, the differences in their preferences, and the variety of mitigating factors, if what children identify with violent heroes at 6 predicts any anti-social behavior at 15 in America -- even marginally, I think it is reasonable to read it as a rejection of the null hypothesis.

And until I am confident of that their experiences were similar, I would not reject the US finding, because the European lack thereof. I suspect the results of cross national studies might now be different given the presence of American programming in the global television market. Take for example Grobel's (2000) recent finding that 13 year old boys across Europe develop strong preferences of action hero programmes. Unfortunately, because longitudinal studies are expensive we are only beginning to understand o how these various intervening variables contribute to children"s social development – both positive and negative.

Not all of the psychological accounts of media effects expect young people to commit aggressive acts immediately after watching. Media can contribute to that process both directly impacting attitudes and by interacting with other risk factors experienced within peer groups, schools, families, communities. Mitigating factors in this socialization of aggression range from family modeling and regulation to laws and public advocacy programmes. This is why most effects researchers do not expect every single child will be influenced by media violence in the same way. For example, the desensitization hypothesis implies that the more children watch, the less violence disturbs them. Habituation and desensitization may well explain why as some children grow up they become bored with violent games. Or alternatively why they seek out more aggressive fantasy experiences to overcome that boredom. Displacement theories imply that the harm to children may derive from what they give up in order to watch , such as healthy social play and reading.

Some of these hypotheses seem tangential to the behaviorist insistence that after playing games children should feel more hostile or act more violently. Yet psychologists understand that these factors constitute developmental assets which may help children cope with ever present media violence. Garbarino for example has noted that once the researcher accounts for these "developmental assets" the media"s influence becomes clearer. Among asset-rich children the rate of violence is low while among asset-poor children the rate is high. "Assets are found throughout the social ecology of the child—family, school, neighborhood, and community. The rate of demonstrating significant violence is 6% for kids with 31 to 40 assets bracket, 16% for those with 21 to 30, 35% for those with 11 to 20, and 61% for those with 0 to 10. Risk and opportunity accumulate." Which is why, he says "an accumulation-of-risk model is essential if we are to understand where televised violence fits into the learning and demonstration of aggressive behavior." Aggressive individuals or those who experience abusive, or brutal family and peer relations may develop a preference for violent entertainment, which in turn confirms templates of human relations which reinforces their understanding of conflict in their lives. Other families monitor, limit and co-view media, exerting a moderating influence over the way children use and interpret media. It all depends. Rather than the causal hypothesis, the driving force behind the psychological research enterprise is To determine what it all depends onbecause accounting for mitigating factors may help us understand why, heavy consumers of violent entertainment do not always grow up to be aggressive and anti-social.

Thirdly, and most problematically Freedman"s review exclusively deals with studies of TV violence and aggressive behavior. Dill and Dill observe that many of the problems in the video game literature arise from limited theorization of the differences between video game play and television watching. Although video game use patterns vary they are not chaotic or unpatterned. But surveys reveal that more so than television, boys are different than girls in their preferences, use and pleasures derived from game play. Boys not surprisingly prefer violent games and value elements that make games violent more. (Kline 1998)The preference for violent video game play is related to the amount of overall time spent and the preference for video gaming as a leisure activity. These heavy players are more likely to have game machines in their rooms, and to be less supervised in their game play.

These are some of the reasons we should not use Freedman "s judgment of limited effects review to the evaluate the learning from video games. Although I believe there are important similarities between these screen media, there is as Bandura (1986) speculates , also good reason to believe that the learning mechanisms invoked by video games will be stronger than with TV:

interactive nature of video games may increase the learning of game playing behaviours, including aggression, especially considering the move towards real-life action and actors in the newer generation of video games. This increasing realism might encourage greater identification with characters and more imitation of the behaviours of video game models.

Dill and Dill also note, as cultural studies scholars have insisted, that the active participation of video game play -- where players choose and then manipulate characters from first person point of view, may accentuate their identification with the characters and narrative: "Identification with the video game character may be stronger than identification with television or movie characters, in part because players choose a character and play the characters role in the video game scenario" (1998: 413). For this reason desensitization effects may be accentuated: "Empathy has been found to be low among known aggressors than non-aggressive and the degree that plots justify the aggression "if violent video games depicts victims as deserving attacks and if these video games tend to portray other humans as targets then reduced empathy is likely to be a consequence of violent video game play".

And finally, I believe that Freedman"s review has passed its best by date: Although it was published in 2002 he provides no account of empirical studies of media and aggression after 1992. It is too bad that Freedman has not kept up with the research literature when he claims that once other factors have been considered in those longitudinal studies, the variance explained by violent media preferences is negligible. ? For example, in a recent longitudinal study published inSciencethis year and undertaken in the USA, Johnson et al. (2002) report that even after controlling for other factors known to contribute to aggressiveness in young people"like childhood neglect, growing up in an unsafe neighborhood, low family income, low parental education and psychiatric disorders" there remain"significant associations between television viewing during early adolescence and subsequent aggressive acts against other persons" later in life. Their data show for example that young boys who watch more television are particularly at risk for aggressive behavior media: whereas 45% of the boys who watched television more than 3 hours per day at age 14, subsequently committed aggressive acts involving others, only 8.9%, who watched television less than an hour a day were aggressive later in life.

So too, in Daniel Anderson et al."s recent reporting of their recontact study, the two teams found " a much stronger support for content-based hypotheses "… Viewing educational programs as preschoolers was associated with higher grades, reading more books, placing more value on achievement, greater creativity and less aggression. These associations were more consistent for boys than for girls. By contrast, the girls who were more frequent preschool viewers of violent programs had lower grades than those who were infrequent viewers." (pg vii) Using sophisticated statistical techniques the researchers found that when they controlled for an intervening variable called television focus (defined by the degree to which children talk about violence and use television themes in their play) there were strongly significant differences between correlations for viewing preferences at age five for violent programmes and aggression during their teens. Those with low television focus had negative -.12 correlations while those medium and high focus had +.24 correlations. Again evidence not of simple direct effects, but of an growing understanding of how children"s patterns of media use can influence their social behaviors.

This brings me to the crux of a perspectival paradox buried in the Amici Curiae"s submission. In their submission the Amici draw attention to both fact that media consumption is a voluntary behavior, and that playing violent games is much enjoyed by young people. This is why they see the legislation as censorship of children"s pleasure. Children are especially active audiences with interactive media, they claim, which is why their media use cannot be understood as a passive assimilation of contents: Children know that video games are simply environments for playful exploration of a sometimes difficult "adult" world. Moreover children"s play, and game play especially is a very complex learning process because it is imaginary: we can "t assume children make literal sense of the violence in their video games. They choose to watch horror films or play video games for many reasons including the potential to fantasize "empowerment" and transgression" and to experience "intensified emotions" or reinforce "ideological" understandings of the grown up world (Buckingham 2001).

All of these arguments are valid; but when the Amici go on to assert that the effects research has not acknowledged them, I must disagree. These cultural studies scholars have in the past ridiculed quantitative effects research for its positivism and failure to appreciate the complexities of children"s relationship to the media. Their underlying objections to quantitative evidence is that "effects are much more diverse and difficult to quantify than believers in the causal hypothesis generally acknowledge". Yet it is not the effects tradition which has been "driven" by a unproven "causal hypothesis" but the cultural critics who read the media effects literature through the lens of the causal hypothesis who see children as only "passive victims" of mediated entertainment.

Every media analyst is acquainted with the complexity of studying the relationships between entertainment and human behavior: So why utilize simplistic behaviorist critiques to call into question the evidence these researchers have gathered that leads them to believe that media can contribute to aggressive and anti-social behavior. This is why I find it so curious that these scholars have relied on the opinions of behavioral psychologists like Goldstein and Freedman, whose industry supported readings of the accumulated evidence are purposive. Freedman and Goldstein are reviewers with a political agenda: both are self confessed "hired guns" who are supported by industry for their reviews of the video game literature. I propose the Amici actually read this literature themselves, for I believe they will find that some of these researchers have thought deeply about how children learn while using media, and report their conclusions honestly.

Cause for Concern: Researching Determinacy in a Complex Social World

The Amici accept this interpretation but have antipathy to the use of probability statistics in the empirical sciences: "significant" they argue does not mean "important". It means simply "not likely to happen by chance." I think it is unfortunate therefore that in their rush to condemn all quantitative research that they fail to distinguish between the use of inferential statistics to prove cause s in laboratories and its use to identify risk factors in studying the effects of media in populations. of the effects literature without understanding the .

I have suggested that it is a learning model not a causal model which drives this field of research. The theories of learning proposed by both the medical and psychological associations suggest that video games can be a risk factor, if a not a cause, which in addition to and interacting with many other factors contributes to socialization (Huesmann 1997). This is why the Amici"s elision of the difference between the causal hypothesis and risk analysis is fundamentally mistaken. The causal hypothesis of the behaviorists critics, and the theories of social learning of risky behaviors employed by the psychologists are radically different conceptions of determinacy in social behaviour: In the history of science this difference is akin to those between biology and ecology in the natural sciences, between a mechanical Newtonian physics and systems quantum science. Underlying both is the rejection of Aristotelian notions of isolatable and necessary precursors of a subsequent effect, to be replaced by a multi-dimensional and probabilistic account of mutually interacting systems of dynamic relationships between variables. It is for this reason that the Surgeon General's (2000) asserts that media violence can be viewed as a risk factor in youth aggression. The report summarized the controversial evidence concerning the media's contribution to youth aggression in the following way:

"Research to date justifies sustained efforts to curb the adverse effects of media violence on youths. Although our knowledge is incomplete, it is sufficient to develop a coherent public health approach to violence prevention that builds upon what is known, even as more research is under way. Unlike earlier Federal research reports on media violence and youth (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982; U.S. Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 1972), this discussion takes place within a broader examination of the causes and prevention of youth violence. This context is vital. It permits media violence to be regarded as one of many complex influences on the behavior of America's children and young people. It also suggests that multilayered solutions are needed to address aggressive and violent behavior."

Risk analysis does not assume that there is one singular and overriding effect. Nor are all of the expected mechanisms related directly to media content. A growing body of research has suggested that an array of psychological mechanisms (social learning, mean world, desensitization, role modeling) are involved in the socialization of aggression. So to the indirect effects of having other kinds of activities displaced (homework, reading for pleasure, social play) and by becoming habitually linked to unhealthy lifestyle practices (eating while watching, inactive pleasures) are widely accepted.

The process of learning to be aggressive and antisocial, involves the development of attitudes and emotional responses to social situations over the course of a lifetime: In the course of daily life it is reasonable to hypothesize that both violent content influences aggressive attitudes and predisposition to aggression can contribute to the preference for violent entertainment. What matters in the long run is whether the patterned use of media contributes to their attitudes to aggressive and anti-social behavior. This is why the video game industry is often compared with the Tobacco industry for promoting a risky behavior. Murray as well as Anderson (refs.) , have suggested that the "risks" associated with violent media use approach those which link smoking to lung cancer: that would mean that 10-20% of teen anti-social behavior can be attributed to their television viewing. Freedman"s estimates are closer to 10% of the variance explained and I support his estimates. Yet remember, those are estimates for the whole population. The correlations are higher for some "at risk" populations – that is children growing up poor, in abusive homes , hanging with aggressive peers and growing up in high crime neighbourhoods.

In epidemiological science the relationship between two variables – for example watching television and obesity -- is established empirically by careful analysis of interacting risks. Since not all smokers get lung cancer, nor do all heavy consumers of violent media become instant killers, these relationships are represented statistically in terms of the probabilities of their concurrence. The statistical tools for assessment of risk are correlation, covariance and regression analysis. In epidemiological research a correlation with a risk indicates that a variable might be a risk factor. It does not matter whether the smoking cause d the cancer, or that those predisposed to cancer smoked more. Nor does it matter that medical science has not yet established exactly which of the chemicals in the smoke actually precipitates the disease process or why individuals predisposed to cancer, smoke. Yet to scientists, the assessment of risks is an important step in the developing a better understanding of the mechanisms of risk reduction. (Hill 1965) For example an analysis of the Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance data for 2001 show that heavy viewers of TV are 7% more likely to get in a fight during the prior 30 days, than light viewers. The same survey estimates that 33 % get in fights during a year, so when used to estimate the implications of a determinant relationship for a population the size of America, a 7% of the difference implies that hundreds of thousands of children could be put at risk of bullying and teasing from television.

    % of US population under 20 = 30%

    size of youth and child population = 30% x 276 million = 82 million

    33 % of teens reported getting fights in 2001 = 27,324,000 fights in America each year.

    7% difference implies that in the order of 1,912,000 fights that might be attributed to heavy television viewing.

Risk analysis acknowledges that media use, like cigarette smoking and wearing of seat belts is a matter of lifestyle choices that become patterned in the course of development. Contributing factors can be explored by comparing the correlations between media use and aggression within specific populations such as boys and girls. If there is evidence that more boys who regularly play violent games are also more likely to be anti-social and aggressive than a comparable population of then media can be said to constitute a lifestyle risk to children in the same way that starting to smoke does. Because viewing is voluntary, does not imply it is risk free. In the face of similar evidence the cigarette companies have demanded definitive proof of a causal mechanism too, in courts where they defend their right to sell this "legal" product. Their insistence on proof of a direct causal relationships in both cases is at odds with scientific judgment of the multiple and mutually interacting risks of aggression that children encounter in the course of their lives.

Children use and interpret video games in different ways. We know that boys , far more than girls are likely to play them regularly, and also to develop stronger preferences for violent games. Moreover, their video game play will itself be sanctioned and negotiated differentially within families, within communities, and within cultures. Perhaps boys identify more with powerful characters, with situations of power and conquest, or perhaps they become habituated to or catharcized by repeated acts of killing. It all depends on a variety of psychological and social forces than can be identified statistically. So why worry about the absolute proof of a generalized causal mechanism if we have strong evidence suggesting particular children will be influenced more by playing violent video games. Acknowledging this, risk analysis suggests that we don"t need to worry about each and every child – only the ones that put themselves at risk because of their particular interest in and preference for violent video games.

The Amici suggest that since harm has not been proven, that we can expectno positive outcomes from the regulation of media. Yet risk analysis of media use has helped us focus on the many things in children"s lives which can moderate the impact of a steady diet of aggressive entertainment. The risk approach suggests that a better understanding of their distribution provides new insights into the possibility of mitigating those risks associated with heavy media consumption. This has been nicely illustrated by two recent field experiments undertaken at Stanford by Robinson and colleagues which demonstrated that reducing young children"s overall exposure to media (TV and video games) can have very positive effects on their health and aggressive behavior. Robinson points out that correlational evidence indicates that avid TV viewers, especially girls, are at risk of obesity and boys of violence. It is true that these correlations don"t tell us whether aggressive and fat children watch more TV, or whether heavy TV viewers fight and eat more and exercise less. But since we are interested in reducing obesity and anti-social behavior it is possible to test these directional relationships by reducing the risks associated with heavy TV viewing.

Applying Bandura"s social learning models, Robinson reasons that reducing children"s media exposure could lessen their identification with aggressive heroes and reduce their enactments of domination scripts in their playground interactions. In the case of obesity three media related mechanisms have been found in the literature: First that children substitute watching TV for more active play; second that in watching more TV children will be exposed to more snack and fast food advertisements; and third, that children develop a particular habit of eating while they watch. Robinson developed a schools based programme for reducing that risk through media education program. At the test school researchers found children in the media risk reduction intervention had reduced their TV viewing by about one-third. They also found that after six months the weight gain in the treatment schools was significantly lower. Moreover, based on ratings of playground aggression, frequencies of bullying and rough and tumble play were about 25 percent lower in the treatment school, than those at the control school.

Conclusion: Rethinking Panic Culture?

Peter Horsfield (1997) has pointed out, the idea of media panic, is now also "invoked by those in positions of power in society and in situations where it doesn"t apply, in order to discount and defuse legitimate challenges to their power" and interests. The Amici curiae are a group of international cultural studies scholars who as "friends of the court" believe that"efforts to address real–world violence by censoring entertainment are profoundly misguided." I highlight this point because it seems to me that the Amici"s intervention is more about the politics of free speech than it is about understanding the role played by media in the socialization of aggression. The Amici are intervening on the side of an industry which has lobbied hard for more than 10 years to resist having any kind of legislation imposed on the promotion, sale and distribution of digital entertainment, against the general drift of American popular opinion. They have put their names, and their scholarly reputations behind the ISDA"s controversial legal claim that any legislation attempting to deal with marketing and sale violent entertainment to children is tantamount to censorship. Unfortunately they never discuss why they think censorship of children"s culture by parents is wrong: And so the cultural studies attack on media effects researchers ends up being political intervention based on challenging the views, and the motives, of effects scientists.

I am not a lawyer nor am I familiar with the St. Louis ordinances exact provisions. Yet from their defense it is clear to me, that like the V-chip, the ratings legislation seeks to consolidate the parental "filtering" of all media in accordance with generally held community standards, rather like a net nanny. Ratings place restrictions on the sale of only those video games which are not intended for, and are deemed inappropriate for children of an age by the industry itself. When, the ISDA funded the rating of these games as 17+ under the ESRB did they not implicitly accept that there are social values and community standards pertaining to all media (TV and Films); that some parents have concerns about the risks associated with video games because they felt they were unsuitable for children. As the ESRB web site claims, these ratings are advisories intended to help parents make appropriate choices for their children: ""We want to make sure that parents and consumers have the tools that they need to monitor which computer and video games their children play," said Dr. Arthur Prober, President of the ESRB." When parents check the rating, the control is in their hands - right where it should be." Since the legislation does not put a ban the sale of video games outright, the legislation hardly merits being called censorship. It is not draconian in its spirit or its intent. Its intent is to help parents prevent their children"s inadvertent exposure to violent, sexual and terrifying experiences. So why is it, that in every jurisdiction that begins to enforce stronger media regulations, the media industry"s P.R. flacks intervene? In the political struggles over children"s entertainment cultural studies has become aligned with an industry which insists any ordinance controlling the children"s marketplace is a censorship law, rather than an aid to families trying to raise their children in difficult circumstances.

These politics of media censorship in America are part of a much broader struggle over what that society considers good or harmful for its children in market society, and who has what rights to communicate with them. I am aware that media panic can be used to promote zero tolerance. But I am also wary of pathologizing American parents and educators for their concern about youth violence. To some degree there is evidence that the gun panic, though not changing the constitution, has to some degree pacified the schools, where the number of weapons and frequency of fighting seems to be falling given the zero tolerance policies. Yet it is also important to remember that the political struggles over youth aggression, are complex and different, in Canada , Britain Sweden and France. In the States freedom of speech and of the press has become equated with freedom for corporations to dominant public discourse. The point I am making is simple, legal and political: the administration of ratings everywhere, including the U.S.A, is generally regarded as a legitimate and helpful mechanism for market regulation designed to maintain community standards and values. This judge in St. Louis felt that the state should play a role in cultural markets by assisting parents to be effective guardians – perhaps so that they don"t have to engage in constant surveillance of their children.

It is true that we don"t know very much about how video game violence will impact children"s culture in the long run. But certainly the optimists are wrong: like television, video games have not brought about a new age of enlightenment. The evidence seems to show, that some children who play them intensely over a long period of time may be more predisposed to aggressiveness in their play preferences and social interactions. They also give up sports and social interaction to play them. They may also less likely to be fit, to sleep less, and often do worse at school because of the time they spend playing them and not doing their homework. Perhaps we shouldn"t be panicked. But neither should we deny the possibility that they provide learning experiences to the children that play them – some that we sanction and celebrate and others that we don"t. The media effects controversy therefore, is not so much about whether there are effects, but how we evaluate them.

War and Peace in the Hallowed Halls

Cultural historians like Brian Sutton Smith have reminded us that both aggressive play and gruesome folktales have long been a facet of children"s culture. This is obvious. But does that mean nothing has changed when the video game industry has developed games which accentuate brutal retribution and justifies the use of force which can be experienced as entertainment – as fun -- by those that choose to play them. Does the longevity of conflict in life and art mean that new media have not altered the environments of story telling, the quantity and brutality of conflicts" representation, and thus contribute to what and how children learn while using them?

The cultural studies scholars have voiced their strong challenge to researchers who claim that media can influence what children learn while playing with video games. Having slogged through this research I am left wondering why cultural studies scholars have declared war on media psychology. Under the banner of media panic they have dismissed its claims, and questioned their motives. Their strongest words are directed against psychological researchers who have tried to gather evidence about what children learn. These cultural critics have public ally condemned these effects psychologists in the courts of America as both false and mischievous because they believe scientific research fans the flames of public anxiety. They advocate an end the censorship of children"s culture, granting total freedom to the media industries get on with their business of entertaining children without reference to community standards. In so doing they have exposed the fundamental disciplinary and epistemological divides that separate these two ways of thinking about media.

I have tried to point out that in respect to method, that the discourses of science are differentiated from other ways of apprehending of our world -- intuition, journalism, divine inspiration, common sense and risk panic -- all of which it is sometimes at odds. As Michele Foucault has so ably noted all sciences are social discourses of knowledge embedded in the struggles over social power in a politicized world. As Foucault concludes: "In societies like ours, the 'political economy' of truth is …centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement. Pg. 131-132.Yet as he goes on to suggest it is " the problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in a discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourse which in themselves are neither true nor false. " pg. 118. This is because a science in our modern lexicon subsumes a self-critical discursive practice -- that is, a social body of experts or specialists who research and debate the results of their investigations. In the twentieth century the sciences emerged as a critical social enterprise whose method of inquiry and its epistemology established careful rules of evidence for argument.

During the twentieth century as our interest in researching public communication grew, the methods of studying communication diverged: on one side, stood the hermeneutic traditions of arts and humanities who interpreted texts in isolation. On the other, stood the social sciences, especially developing in North America, who emphasized the generalizable effects of mass-mediated content. Raymond Williams was worried by this ever-widening divide in post WW II communication studies between social scientific and humanities communities. Media studies especially the study of audiences, he argued, was being bifurcated by these epistemological and methodological rifts.

I believe Williams fully understood the fundamental differences underlying the theories, interests, research methods and philosophies in the divergent streams of communication studies. The humanities had evolved its critical "interpretive" approach from methods of the exegesis of texts which emphasized the insightful interpretive analysis of specific cultural artifacts, and from the detailed historical analysis of documentary evidence situated in specific socio-historical contexts. These scholars contributed "sustained and detailed analysis of actual cultural works" he argued, but "what was much more open to question was the extension of this kind of analysis and insight to matters of cultural and social generalization." The social scientists on their part, seemed to Williams to be reductionist and a-historical in the general laws, structures and impacts of communication processes they espoused. American social sciences were especially steeped in quantitative behaviorism and operationalism, all too often narrowing their empirical inquiry to questions which were easily "observable" rather than critical challenges to prevailing ideology. Each epistemological community tended to police its disciplinary boundaries more vociferously, avoiding dialogue about complementary methods, or fundamentally misunderstanding the dialectical logic at the heart of qualitative and quantitative methods.

Yet Williams worried that culturalist approach had become naively opposed to the social science method. They also stopped taking the idea of determinacy seriously. Williams himself refused to reject completely the value of the American "effects research tradition, indeed stated clearly that he found much of it "useful". His proposal of a hybrid discipline called "cultural science" was based on his hope that by entering into a dialogue there would be a healing of the epistemic fissures in communication research. He believed that it would only be through such a dialogue that this new discipline would be able to keep social structure and "determinacy" relationships in full view while acknowledging the 'agency' of audiences that chose to use and consume them.

Beneath the epistemic divide between cultural studies and psychology however, lie divergent valorizations of childhood itself. Cultural studies has documented the resourceful child who always copes with what the market offers. Concerned with the problem of well being, the psychologists documented the vulnerable child, at ever greater risk in our risk society. Both of these perspectives are important ways of thinking about the situation of the media saturated childhood. I share Williams dream of a unified cultural science, but fear that his "politics of hope" has been forgotten in the disciplinary struggle over how we should interpret the media risks in America and Europe.


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Stephen Kline