More than three decades of psychologists' research is showcased in the widely publicized Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, which offers startling evidence that the entertainment industry aggressively markets violent entertainment to children.

The report, "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording and Electronic Game Industries," was released in September. At the FTC's request, APA members and other health-care professionals shared their research on media violence's detrimental effect on children.

And Jeff McIntyre, a legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Policy Office, took psychology's perspective to Capitol Hill for a congressional hearing on the report's findings.

"The report reads like the APA directory," says McIntyre. "Our members are cited throughout."

A smoking gun

The FTC report is the outgrowth of a request for an investigation by President Clinton and concerned members of Congress. Confidential internal documents subpoenaed from the entertainment industry showed that their concern was warranted.

For example, the commission concluded that all of the music recordings it reviewed were targeted to children despite labels warning of the songs' explicit content. Marketing plans either specifically identified children as part of the music's potential audience or outlined plans for advertising in publications and other venues aimed at young people.

Findings from other entertainment industries were just as startling. Eighty percent of the films the commission examined were targeted to children under 17 despite R ratings. Seventy percent of the electronic games examined were targeted to children despite "mature" labels and an industry-wide agreement not to peddle violence to children.

"Companies basically handed over information that turned out to be damning to the industries themselves," says psychologist Brian L. Wilcox, PhD, director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "They handed over the smoking gun."

The FTC also discovered that retailers were often abetting the industry's actions by failing to comply with rules regarding ratings and labels. The commission found that almost half of the movie theaters studied admitted 13- to 16-year-olds to R-rated movies even when they weren't accompanied by adults, for example. Similarly, these young teens were able to purchase music with "explicit" labels and electronic games with "mature" ratings 85 percent of the time.

These findings inspired the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to hold two hearings on the commission's findings. Faced with the scathing report and an angry Congress, many entertainment industry representatives cited lapses in judgment, claimed ignorance of marketing practices or blamed consulting firms.

But the criticism is already bearing fruit. The Motion Picture Association of America has now agreed to stop including children in efforts to market R-rated films, for instance. And Disney decided to bar children under 17 from participating in focus groups for R-rated films and said it would urge theaters to do a better job of enforcing age limits.

Industry executives weren't the only ones at the hearings, however. The committee also invited experts on violence and children to participate. In his testimony, APA's McIntyre pointed to the work of psychologists in a 1972 Surgeon General's report, a 1982 National Institute of Mental Health report and a 1994 to 1997 project called the National Television Violence Study. The message from these and hundreds of other studies is clear, he said: Each exposure to violence increases the chances that children will some day behave more violently than they otherwise would.

"The psychological processes here are not mysterious," McIntyre told the senators. "Children learn by observing others....If kids can learn positive behaviors via this medium, they can learn the harmful ones."

The FTC report itself includes an appendix summarizing the literature on media violence and children, which focuses primarily on television programming. While emphasizing the distinction between correlation and causation, the report concludes that exposure to media violence is associated with children acting aggressively, becoming desensitized toward victims of violence and developing exaggerated fears of becoming victims of violence themselves. Those unrealistic fears can in turn result in children mistrusting others and developing other negative personality traits.

Commerce Committee Chair Sen. John McCain (RĀ­Ariz.) urged the entertainment industry to keep such research in mind.

"I think it's worthy to note that...representatives of the American Psychiatric Association, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association are all in agreement that the present rating system is both inadequate and not sufficient information to parents," he said. "That's a pretty strong indictment of the present system in my view, and I think the respect in which these three professions are held by the American people might be instructive to the industry."

Next steps

The real question is how to translate outrage into action, say psychologists who work in the field. Because the First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating content, the FTC report urges stronger self-regulation. The report specifically calls for the industry to:

  • Prohibit the practice of marketing adult products to children;

  • Impose sanctions on violators;

  • Encourage movie theaters and retailers to comply with rating systems;

  • Include the reasons behind ratings in advertising and product packaging; and

  • Educate parents and children about what various ratings actually mean.

A 1994 resolution passed by APA's Council of Representatives encouraged parents to monitor their children's consumption of entertainment media, supported the use of warning labels and broadcast-blocking technologies and urged the industry to reduce violent programming.

Now it's time to do more, says Wilcox. One possibility is to reform the rating system. Television shows, movies, music recordings and electronic games each use different rating systems.

"It's a tower of Babel for parents who are trying to understand what's out there," says Wilcox. "Faced with all these different systems, parents often just give up."

A universal rating system that would apply to all forms of media would help parents protect their children, he says. In the wake of the FTC report, the Directors Guild of America has called for just such a system.

Even more important, says Wilcox, is continuing involvement by APA and similar groups.

"There's a lot of room for APA and other nongovernmental organizations that have scientific expertise and an interest in children's welfare to step forward and keep the pressure on," he says. "We need to get the entertainment industry to engage in real self-regulatory behavior rather than simply claiming to do something as they have in the past."

Psychologist Dale L. Kunkel, PhD, one of the researchers who participated in the National Television Violence Study, agrees.

"The First Amendment protects the entertainment industry's right to market violence to children, but just because they have the right to do that doesn't make it the right thing to do," says Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "What we're really talking about here is social responsibility."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.