Testimony Before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation On The Impact of Media Violence On Children

Presented by Jeff J. McIntyre on behalf of the American Psychological Association

The Honorable Daniel Inouye, Chairman - June 26, 2007

Good morning. I am Jeff McIntyre, and I am honored to be here today to represent the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA is the largest organization representing psychology and has over 148,000 members and affiliates working to advance psychology as a science, a profession, and as a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.

My years of policy experience related to children and the media include serving as a negotiator for the development of a television ratings system, as an advisor to the Federal Communications Commission’s V-Chip Task Force, and as a current member of the Oversight Monitoring Board for the television ratings system. I also co-chair the Children’s Media Policy Coalition, a national coalition of public health, child advocacy, and education groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Children Now, and the National PTA.

In the late 1990’s, tragic acts of violence in our schools directed our nation’s attention to the serious problem of youth violence. School shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; and Littleton, Colorado, and, more recently, in Blacksburg, Virginia, have brought about a national conversation on the origins of youth violence and what we – as parents, psychologists, and public policymakers – can do to prevent more incidents of violence.

Years of psychological research on violence prevention and child development has helped inform, and continue to address, this urgent need. While the foundations of acts of violence are complex and variable, certain risk factors have been established in the psychological literature. Among the factors that place youth at risk for committing an act of violence are exposure to acts of violence. This includes, but is not limited to, those in the media.

Foremost, the conclusions drawn on the basis of more than 30 years of research contributed by APA members – as highlighted in the U.S. Surgeon General’s report in 1972, the National Institute of Mental Health’s report in 1982, and the three-year National Television Violence Study in the 1990’s – shows that repeated exposure to violence in the mass media places children at risk for:

  • increases in aggression;

  • desensitization to acts of violence;

  • and unrealistic increases in fear of becoming a victim of violence, which results in the development of other negative characteristics, such as mistrust of others.

This research provided the foundation upon which representatives of the public health community – comprised of the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association - issued a landmark consensus statement in 2000 regarding the state-of the-science on the effects of media violence on children.

Certain psychological facts are well established in this debate. As APA member Dr. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan stated before the Senate Commerce Committee - just as every cigarette you smoke increases the chances that, someday, you will get cancer, every exposure to violence increases the chances that, some day, a child will behave more violently than he or she otherwise would.

Hundreds of studies have confirmed that exposing our children to a steady diet of violence makes them more violence prone. The psychological processes here are not mysterious. Children learn by observing others. Mass media and the advertising world provide a very attractive window for these observations.

Excellent children’s pro-social programming (such as Sesame Street) and pro-social marketing (such as that around helmets for skateboarding) is to be commended and supported. Psychological research shows that what is responsible for the effectiveness of good children’s programming and pro-social marketing is that children learn from their media environment. If children can learn positive behaviors this way, they can learn harmful ones as well.

As I mentioned before this committee last year, the ratings system merits attention in this discussion. There continues to be concern arising from the ambiguity in the implementation of the current ratings system. The ratings system can be undermined by the marketing efforts of the very groups responsible for its implementation and effectiveness (e.g., marketing adult-rated programs to children). This displays a significant lack of accountability and should be considered when proposals for industry self-regulation are discussed. At the very least, the industry is failing to actively promote its rating system, except in response to possible government oversight.

Where the vast amount of scientific data and agreement in the public health community is - regarding children’s health - is that exposure to violence in the media is a significant concern and risk factor for individual children’s health. There is also a growing body of research on the health impact of sexualized images – on young girls specifically – as detailed in the recent APA Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls.

In terms of the recent Circuit court ruling, it's important to mention that there is very little scientific evidence that documents the effects of "fleeting expletives" on children. This is not to say that it is not a concern - as many parents groups will point out. However, in these instances, if the intent of regulating speech is concerned with the exposure of children - to reference the original Pacifica case - then that concern is about the harm that is done to children.

If harm or risk to children is the concern, then we must establish a standard upon which all children may benefit equally. That foundation should be a health based standard, based on decades of child psychology and research on child development.

We know exposure to violence is a risk factor for committing later acts of violence. The more a child is exposed to violence - in the schools, in the family, in the media - the more prone they are to committing acts of violence later in life.

In conclusion, a detailed, content-based ratings system is a vital step towards giving parents the information they need to make choices about their children's media habits. Decades of psychological research bear witness to the potential harmful effects for our children and our nation if these practices continue.

Chairman Inouye and distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to present this testimony today. Please regard me and the American Psychological Association as a resource to the committee in your deliberations on this important matter.