Mum’s the word. . .

If there's ever going to be a meaningful debate over the effect of violent entertainment products on kids' behavior, both sides of the argument had better show up. Right now, everyone on the studio side seems to have gone to ground,...
June 1, 1999

If there’s ever going to be a meaningful debate over the effect of violent entertainment products on kids’ behavior, both sides of the argument had better show up. Right now, everyone on the studio side seems to have gone to ground, declining even the most commanding of invites to share thoughts on the matter. Hollywood is so used to being ‘scapegoated’ as a dark force whenever some horrendous incident occurs, that a kind of process kicks in whereby the topic is studiously avoided. The constant fear is that when legislators bandy about things like ‘voluntary codes,’ it might lean towards regulation that impinges on the freedom of expression within artistic content, and that the entertainment industry serves as an oversimplified target-a safer culprit than say, the gun lobby. And, in the aftermath of something as society-shaking as the Colorado massacre, almost any response other than ‘mea culpa’ would seem insensitive. It’s not the right moment for a lobby involving bumper stickers that say: Violence in entertainment doesn’t kill people, guns do.

What’s on the table is stricter monitoring of who is getting access to violent movies, video games and extreme lyrics. Generally, content that must be directly purchased, thereby passing the onus to enforce age-appropriate safeguards past the content creators. The decision to look at who the violent content is being marketed to seems the most likely way past the deadlocked debate that has studio lobbyists calling for a church-and-home constructed ‘moral shield’ to protect kids. But parents feel that short of a steel bunker cone of silence, no shielding is going to be effective given the ubiquity of the violent content being dished out.

Scuttlebutt out of E3 (definitely not a bastion of good taste) is that some games were considered so likely to invite harsh criticism due to the extremity of their ‘animated blood, animated violence’ content, that companies were screening those who wanted to screen the titles. Given that a more youthful component than prescribed by the recommended demo will always be avidly consuming content that is not intended for their tender years, there is definitely room for improvement here in terms of sensitivity to access. Also, the Net houses a wealth of problematic content, and is difficult both to supervise and regulate by age-restrictions, and Web TV crossover and CGI-proficient gamecos starting to make moves into the TV series realm loom.

TV is relatively tame compared to gaming gore, slasher flicks and gangsta rap lyrics, and on the kids TV front, there is already a lot of regulation going on, from The WB’s voluntary on-screen content warnings, kids prodcos’ internal codes of honor and FCC broadcast directives for kids content. However, especially when the problem is kids dipping into older-intended material, it comes down to this: warnings are not enough. At a recent advertising to youth conference, a speaker from the WWF said, ‘we’re soap opera.’ When asked by an audience member if the WWF should show some responsibility regarding the violent content, considering its youthful audience, he replied that the WWF provides disclaimers, and it’s up to parents to turn the TV off. Joan Chiaramonte of Roper Starch pointed out that there are unfortunately many parents who hardly qualify as appropriate screening agents. What responsibility do we have to protect these kids, was her implicit question. While an incompetent parent is probably indicative of a more urgent problem than a child watching wrestling, it does underscore that in the world of single, working parents and tech-savvy, age-compressed kids, the responsibility to simply warn is only part of the solution. When the programming in question does appeal to youth, especially when they are targeted with an accompanying action figure line, it’s something to ponder.

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