A Free Speech Challenge for Parents

Should a 13-year-old be able to purchase a school-shooting simulator without parents’ knowledge or consent?

The Supreme Court says that freedom of speech requires that 13-year-olds have that opportunity. In a 7-2 decision, the court struck down a California law barring the sale of graphically violent video games to people under 18.

I have not seen legal minds commenting on what seem (to me) to be obvious consequences of this decision. If the First Amendment requires that minors be able to purchase graphically violent video games, does this mean minors may attend R-rated movies without an adult or purchase pornography? We have longstanding traditions and laws which regulate the speech to which minors may be exposed without the consent of their parents.

The research on the effects of violent video games shows that parents and society have reason to be concerned. Today, we are not talking about the games from my youth like Space Invaders or games that involved a cartoon-like image of a person falling over. We are talking about games with graphic, movie-quality images of death and dismemberment. Unlike a movie, however, which is viewed passively, game players are actively causing the scenes which unfold before them.

Yes, video games are pretend. Of course, they are. Even young teenagers who play the games know they are pretend. Yet, even passively viewing pretend images affects the way people think. Television commercials are pretend. We all know they are pretend. The reason some of the most successful businesses in the world advertise—even paying over $2,000,000 for a 30-second Super Bowl spot—is not to generously provide free television for us; it is because they have data showing that advertising changes consumers’ attitudes and behavior. Active participation, like playing a video game, changes attitudes and behavior more efficiently than passively watching TV.

Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars? No. Very few kids who play violent video games will perform those acts in real life. The changes most kids will experience as a result of playing violent video games are more subtle than mass murder, but are still quite measurable.

For example, greater exposure to violent media desensitizes people to the effects of violence and aggression. What would have been abhorrent, or should be, becomes not so bad or perhaps even funny. Violent video games cause users to think more violent thoughts. Typical behavioral effects from these changes in thinking might range from not being appropriately moved by images of real human suffering to being more argumentative and disrespectful.

Space does not allow for a full consideration of the effects of using violent video games. I spend an entire class period in my course on child development discussing violent media. Among the well-established effects is that users of violent media are more likely to believe that crime victims deserved their fate. In addition, users of violent media have a distorted view of the world, believing life to be significantly less safe than it is.

It is true that people who are prone to aggressiveness are more likely to use violent media. It is also true that people who use violent media become more aggressive. None of us want to believe that we will acquire a taste for the distasteful, but if we consume enough of what began as distasteful, it becomes satisfying.

Make no mistake about it; video games can be a great use of free time. Research shows that kids who play video games develop better spatial skills and hand-eye coordination. They are also just plain fun. Yet the benefits of video games do not require gruesome images.

We endure a lot of ugliness to protect our right to free speech. Like Justices Clarence Thomas and Steven Breyer, I do not believe that restricting the sale of violent video games to people 18 and older would have strained the First Amendment. With or without laws that require adult involvement for kids to have questionable material, parents must be parents. Laws are no substitute for parental monitoring. While I find the Court’s decision disappointing, it highlights the need for parents to be proactive and willing to make tough decisions.

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is an assistant professor of psychology at Grove City College and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values.