The room lights are low. The TV screen is flickering with images of a shootout between cops and bad guys. Wide-eyed in front of the screen sits a 9-year-old clutching a remote control. But the control isn't to a questionable TV program or video. It is to a video game that requires active participation. Hitting the buttons in a certain sequence, the 9-year-old can shoot a cop. The screen flashes a "reward" of so many points. The background music rises in a congratulatory crescendo: "Good shot," or "impressive," a voice blares back, encouraging him to kill more police officers.
This is an accurate illustration of what regularly takes place in some American homes. The frequency of sex, profanity, and violence in movies and on TV is wellknown. Less well understood is the degree of violence in video games.
Videomakers dismiss the thesis that violent videos can generate aggressive behavior in viewers. But scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Two Iowa State University psychologists, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, conclude in an article in the journal Psychological Science that "violent video games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults." They note that in three recent school shootings, the shooters were "students who habitually played violent video games." For instance, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School students who killed 13 people in Littleton, Colo., enjoyed playing a bloody video game, "Doom." Eric even created a customized version with extra weapons and victims who couldn't fight back.
Mr. Bushman, now at the University of Michigan, conducted a statistical review of 85 separate studies of video violence. He told me in a phone interview: "There's no question that exposure to violent videos stimulates aggressive behavior. It's incredibly troubling."
Three years ago, the US Senate Commerce Committee held hearings on the problem. Government funding for additional research was urged, but nothing appears to have been done. Bushman says a new pitch is being made for funding through the National Institute of Mental Health to study long-term effects of video violence.
Mr. Anderson and Bushman found that, on average, youths between 8 and 18 spend more than 40 hours a week using electronic media. While TV is most frequently used, electronic video games are rapidly growing in popularity, and, they note, the "most heavily marketed and consumed games are violent ones."
While high school and college students play a lot of video games, young children are growing up increasingly immersed in electronic media. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released last month found that 30 percent of US children under 6 have played video games, and that many of that age are "actively asking for and helping themselves to what they want." Some 77 percent of them turn on the TV by themselves, and 71 percent ask for favorite videos or DVDs.
What can parents do?
First, become educated about the issue. Bushman says that newspapers and magazines have generally not done a lot of serious reporting on the problem. Second, monitor what children are watching, and have handy a supply of good, nonviolent tapes, DVDs, and computer games. Limit the amount of time children spend in front of the TV or computer screen.
Bushman thinks that some corporations are beginning to ponder their association with violent programs and images. New research suggests that viewers have a harder time remembering advertising messages built around violent programs. After he discussed this recently on the Jim Lehrer news show, Bushman got a call from an interested General Mills executive who wanted to pursue the question of corporate association with violent images.Producers of this violent visual material, so far unmoved by appeals to tone it down on moral and ethical grounds, might yet respond to negative public opinion if it is translated into a reduced profit line.
• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.