B.C. discussion paper on violence, the media and our children

Ministry of the Attorney General
September 7, 2001

British Columbia has recently announced its intention to classify video games and home videos and to regulate their sale and rental. This paper highlights some of the available research on the impacts of media violence and video game violence and the recent action being taken in BC.

There is a growing body of research supporting a correlation between media violence and aggressive behaviour and attitudes in children and youth. Recent indications are that the entertainment industry is targeting the marketing of violent products to youth. BC is calling for a national strategy to address media violence.

Technology is quickly and dramatically changing. Today, the computer provides access to most media and to a vast array of new sources of entertainment including games, videos and chat-rooms. Tomorrow, all of the options available by satellite, cable, Internet and radio will be available through a single home entertainment unit. The choices will increase exponentially, without limitations save those set by the user.

Technology and the global market for these goods have largely outpaced efforts to influence the production, distribution or content of entertainment. Community values are not always primary concerns, and nations struggle to have an impact on the content of what is seen within their borders. The implications of the advancement of technology have not been fully explored, and the role for government in safeguarding users, particularly children and youth, is complex.

Current industry-sponsored rating systems are fragmented, inconsistent and unenforceable. Those schemes rely on the goodwill of industry and do not provide the necessary clear reference points to community standards upon which parents and users can make informed decisions.

Given the fragmented industry rating system and the increasing levels of violence on TV, home videos and the Internet, BC has decided to act. The Government of British Columbia intends to empower parents and youth with necessary information about video game violence and provide a system of classification and restriction for games and videos that will help them make informed choices.

The Effects of Media Violence on Children

The wealth of research on children and youth and the effect on them of violence in the media comes from the United States. In July, 2000 the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Psychological Association, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology and the American Medical Association issued a joint statement proclaiming that their findings point overwhelmingly to a strong connection between the violence in video games, home videos, TV shows, movies and aggressive behaviour. The findings support four decades of research connecting exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour in children.

As early as 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that children were exposed to a substantial amount of violence on TV, and that they were capable of remembering and learning from this type of material. Early studies showed a significant and consistent correlation between exposure to televised violence and subsequent aggressive behaviour. [U.S. Surgeon General Report, 1972]

In 1977 in Canada, the Report of the Ontario Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry concluded that the great weight of research into the effects of violent media indicates potential harm to society. Its prevalence in the North American intellectual community is compared to potentially dangerous food and drug additives and air or water pollutants such as lead, mercury, and asbestos. [Smith, V. (August 2000). Media Violence 101: An Introduction to Media Violence]

Nearly twenty years later, the American Psychological Association Task Force on Television and Society reiterated this position after examining hundreds of experimental and longitudinal studies that indicated high levels of television viewing are correlated with aggressive behavior and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes. [American Psychological Association Task Force on Television and Society, 1992]

A U.S. study in 1995 reported that the viewing patterns children establish as toddlers will influence their viewing habits throughout their lives.[Josephson, (1995). "Television Violence: A Review of the Effects on Children of Different Ages"] The study concluded that:

a.. At ages three to five, children cannot contextualize violence, but they do behave more aggressively than usual in their play after watching any violent television.

b.. At ages six to 11, children develop the attention span and cognitive ability to follow continuous plots and to recognize motivations and consequences to characters actions. They may invest increasingly less mental effort, which means they react to television in an unfocused, superficial way. They can develop a taste for horror movies (perhaps to overcome their own fears) and become desensitized and tolerant of violence in the real world.

c.. At ages 12 to 17, children are capable of abstract thought but rarely use these abilities when watching television. Interests at this age involve independence, sex and romance, music videos, horror movies, and pornography. Although susceptible to imitating some kinds of television violence, only a small percentage of adolescents will be affected this way. Research indicates three key ways in which people are affected by media violence:

1. Aggression: those who are exposed to much media violence may become more aggressive. They may develop accepting attitudes about the use of aggression to resolve conflicts.

2. Desensitization: those who watch much media violence may become less sensitive to violence in the real world, less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more willing to tolerate increasing levels of violence in society.

3. Fear: those who watch a lot of violence in the media may perceive the real world to be as threatening as it is on television.

In 1998, Smith & Donnerstein [Smith and Donnerstein, (1998). "Harmful effects of Exposure to Media Violence: Learning of Aggression, Emotional Desensitization, and Fear"] found that the most suggestive images for learning aggression are those that show attractive villains engaging in justified and rewarded violence that do not show any pain or harm to the victims. The risk of desensitization increases from viewing extensive and repeated acts of violence mixed with humor or blood. Depictions involving unjustified acts of aggression that are not punished increase the risk of fear and anxiety in viewers.

In Canada, Laval University E'tude sur Les Medias released a study in 1999 indicating that violence on Canadian television is growing at an alarming rate: violent acts on television increased 50 per cent between 1995 and 1998. This increase occurred in spite of the fact that the Canadian Association of Broadcasters made a pledge in 1996 to take action on the issue. [Smith, V. (August 2000). Media Violence 101: An Introduction to Media Violence]

While violence in the media is not singly responsible for children's aggression, the Canadian Paediatric Society has stated that "the influence of the media on the psychosocial development of children is profound". [Canadian Paediatric Society, (1999). "Children and the Media" (position paper)]

The Nature of Video Games

Video games are big business. In the United States more than 215 million computer and video games were sold last year alone that is more than two per household. Sales during the past four years have nearly doubled. [Interactive Digital Software Association]

The majority of studies directly focused on the effects of video games were conducted before advanced technology became available to the gaming public. The first video game in the 1970's was an electronic version of ping-pong. Today games feature realistic characters armed with a variety of weapons engaging in battle, complete with blood, screams, dismemberment and death. Children and youth can select weapons, locations, powers and even the racial orientation of the protagonist.

A study of 650 BC youth conducted by the Media Analysis Laboratory (October 1998) at Simon Fraser University found the following:

a. 95 per cent of teens surveyed had access to a home computer or a video game machine, and 90 per cent owned at least some video games;

b. 85 per cent of teens said that video games can have a harmful effect on kids. Only 15 per cent thought they had no harmful effect; and,

c. Only 5 per cent of the sample said that video games are not addictive.

Violent video games dominate the market. In 1998 a researcher sampled 33 of the most popular video games and found that nearly 80 per cent of the games were violent in nature - 21 per cent portrayed violence towards women. [Dietz, T.L. (1998). "An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behaviour." Sex Roles, 38, 425 442]

A recent study published in the American Psychological Association [Anderson, C. & Dill, K. (April 2000). "Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviour in the Laboratory and in Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology] found that real-life violent video game play was positively related to aggressive behaviour and delinquency. The study further found that laboratory exposure to a graphically violent video game increased aggressive thoughts and behaviour. These findings lend further support to the mounting evidence that exposure to violent video games will increase aggressive behaviour in both the short term and the long term.

In addition, the exposure to violent videos is exacerbated by advertising targeted at youth. We know that early findings from a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation have found that the entertainment industry is targeting its marketing of violent products to children and youth.

The tragedy of youths killing youths in high schools has shocked the world. While there is no doubt that other factors contributed to these attacks, in one case the two killers had customized a version of the video game Doom so that there were two shooters, each with extra weapons and unlimited ammunition, and the victims were unable to fight back. [Ibid] This game became reality for the killers and the students that were trapped in the school.

The BC Government's Plan: Working with Industry, Parents and Youth

Video games with mature sexual/violent themes are unregulated in Canada and are sold/rented to children and youth without legal restriction. In BC, only video games that feature Adult content - explicit and realistic actions - are subject to regulation under the Motion Picture Act. The BC Film Classification office reviews potentially Adult video games in response to complaints, but has not historically reviewed all video games.

In July, 2000 BC announced its intention to develop and  implement a new classification system to inform parents about the  content of video games. A working group of public, municipal and  industry representatives will advise a provincial working group,  including the BC Film Classification Office, on the new classification  system and implementation issues.

We know that parents are the best mediators of their  children's viewing. Parents can judge their child's maturity level  and discuss with them any disturbing images portrayed in the media.  However, as children become more and more technologically savvy, they  will make choices without their parents=92 knowledge or consent. The BC  Government's intent is to implement a classification system for all video games that allows parents and youth to make informed choices.

Parents must be able to trust that the rating systems used in BC for movies, home videos and video games reflect our own Canadian community standards.

In an effort to provide one harmonized classification system, BC will also classify all home videos. Except for adult videos, all home videos are currently available to be owned or rented by a person of any age, without legal restriction. BC intends to develop a new system to ensure all videos are rated and those rated 18A are not available to children or youth under 19 unless an adult accompanies them.

Recommendation

In addition to the work we are doing to lead Canada in the classification of video games, the Attorney General of British Columbia is seeking the support of the federal government, the provinces and territories in developing a national strategy on child and youth targeted violence in media. Elements of this strategy would include:

a. Cooperation from the federal government, the provinces and the territories to develop a national commitment to video game classification;

b. Federal support for research to identify sources and  types of offensive violence in child and youth-oriented media;

c. Federal leadership in the development of a national  public awareness strategy to assist parents, teachers, youth and children in taking appropriate action to reduce the impact of violent media images on children and youth; and,

d. Agreement that the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Offensive Content on the Internet consider issues of children's and youths' exposure to media violence not only through the Internet but also other convergent media.

Updated: September 7, 2000