Senators Propose Media Research

A nonpartisan group of four United States senators--Sam Brownback (R-KS), Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Rick Santorum (R-PA)--have proposed legislation authorizing research into the effects of various media such as video games on the development of children. Press releases announcing the legislation were also sent out by Lieberman, and Clinton. The Children Media Research and Advancement Act (CAMRA) has been approved by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), which means it will be going to the senate floor for consideration. One of the press releases stated that the act would be allocated $90M over five years, but this appears to be referring to a prior version of the study proposed in 2004.

Specifically, CAMRA calls for a research program within the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in association with the National Institute of Health (NIH). The CDC would run a six-year study analyzing the effects that various electronic media (such as games and television) have on the social, emotional, physical, educational, and behavioral development of minors. Diplomatically, none of the press releases mentioned violence or aggression as hypothetical effects of media. "Electronic media is so pervasive in children's lives that it often plays the role of a babysitter, even going so far as to define the cultural norms children come to accept," warned Senator Brownback. Last week, Brownback also spoke out against the growing amount of violence on television, in response to a study on children's programming: "I fear too many parents have an unjustified sense of security when they place their children in front of the television. I hope this new study from the Parents Television Council will demonstrate that children's programs are not necessarily free of violence, crude language, and coarse humor."

"Today's vote by the HELP Committee is a big step toward helping parents get the information they need about the effect of media on their children," Lieberman said. "America is a media-rich society, but despite the flood of information, we still lack critical information. As policymakers -- and as parents -- we have a responsibility to examine the effects of media on our children, a responsibility this legislation can better enable us to fulfill. No one is looking out, in a systematic way, for cumulative impact of today's newer electronic media on our children. The questions about the effects - positive or negative - of media on our children's health, education and development are too important to go unasked and unanswered."

The senators proposing the bill are certainly well known to gamers who follow legislation targeting games. Clinton, with the support of Lieberman, recently attempted to federally enforce and overhaul ESRB ratings, and Lieberman has been one of the longest-standing critics of the industry since before the founding of the ESRB. The reason for a CDC-led study is clear; up until now, research directly linking video games or other media to altered behavior or development in young people has been generally contradictory or less than credible. However, a six-year collaboration between the CDC and NIH would surely be seen as the definitive research on the matter. If it turns out the results the that Clinton, Lieberman & co. are expecting, it would add needed firepower to the largely ineffective attempts at curtailing or regulating the sale of violent video games. Most legislation that is passed or proposed dealing with allegedly harmful content in games is struck down because, without conclusive evidence that such content is directly harmful to minors, such legislation is considered a violation of free speech under the First Amendment.

As far as what would happen if such survey demonstrated tangible negative effects on minors, there doesn't seem to be a clear cut answer based on past rulings. For example, when striking down Illinois legislation attempting to legally forbid the sale or rental of violent games to minors, Judge Matthew Kennelly did point out that there was a lack of conclusive research supporting the law, but he also stated that, "In this country, the state lacks the authority to ban protected speech on the ground that it affects the listener's or observer's thoughts and attitudes," suggesting that even if such research were to be produced, the First Amendment would take precedence. However, a federal judge indicated in regards to a failed St. Louis County, Missouri law that "the county may constitutionally restrict the speech at issue here" if "empirical support" is provided showing a link between games and behavior.

Marv Johnson, speaking as legislative council to the American Civil Liberties Union, indicated concern with the legislation: "Down the road when--if there is some sort of finding that there is harm in this--then we're going to see calls to regulate speech because of the potential harm. That's where there's going to be a problem." ESA president Doug Lowenstein hasn't released any statements yet, but that should be coming any moment now.