A year ago Hillary Clinton said the electronic entertainment kids enjoy is “a kind of contagion,” a “silent epidemic” threatening “long-term public health damage to many, many children and therefore to society.” Now she wants to find out if it's a problem.
This month a Senate committee approved a bill sponsored by the junior senator from New York that authorizes government-funded research on “the effects of viewing and using electronic media, including television, computers, video games and the Internet, on children's cognitive, social, physical and psychological development.” Fittingly, since Clinton likens these diversions to a plague, the research would be overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year Clinton claimed “we have this data that demonstrates there is a clear public health connection between exposure to [depictions of] violence and increased aggression.” This year, explaining why she wants to spend taxpayers' money on more studies, she sounds less confident, saying “we need to better understand the effect of the constant barrage of media on our children.”
Maybe new research will convince Clinton “the constant barrage of media” has a positive influence on “our children,” like a barrage of hugs or a barrage of green, leafy vegetables. But probably not.
Before a single CDC grantee has begun research to confirm there's a problem, Clinton already has proposed a solution: the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA), which would make it a federal crime to sell anyone under the age of 17 video games with “mature” or “adults only” ratings. FEPA also would instruct the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate the industry's rating system, conduct secret annual audits of retailers, investigate “hidden” game content, and collect consumer complaints about ratings and content descriptions.
Although FEPA's provisions may sound mild, it's a big step toward government regulation of video-game content, which would raise serious constitutional issues. Clinton's legislation could sabotage a private rating system that, while imperfect, provides parents with the information they need to monitor the video games their children play.
As Adam Thierer notes in a new report from the Progress & Freedom Foundation, “the industry's ratings system is the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America.” It includes seven symbols, ranging from “EC” (early childhood) to “AO” (adults only), and more than 30 descriptions of potentially inappropriate content.
Upon introducing FEPA in December, Clinton and her co-sponsors claimed “parents are struggling to keep up with being informed about [video game] content.” Yet all they have to do is look at the box or check titles at the website of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Newer game systems even allow automatic blocking of titles with parent-specified ratings.
Thierer argues the threat of fines or criminal charges for failing to keep M-rated games away from minors could lead game developers to stop rating their products, in which case Congress would respond by establishing a mandatory government-run labeling system. Such content regulation would go even further than state laws restricting video games, all of which have been overturned on First Amendment grounds, largely because courts rejected Clinton's assertion of “a clear ... connection” between video games and antisocial behavior.
Clinton complains that “young people are able to purchase [violent and sexually explicit] games with relative ease.” While it's true retailers usually sell M-rated games to the FTC's 13-to-16-year-old “mystery shoppers,” Thierer cites survey data indicating that “92 percent of the time parents are present when games are purchased or rented.” Present or not, parents have the power of the purse strings, especially with products that cost $40 to $60 each.
As with sex and violence on television, which the mandatory but rarely used “V chip” was supposed to block, Clinton's real complaint is not that parents don't have the power they need. It's that they're not using it the way she thinks they should.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. His first book, For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, was Amazon.com’s #1 public policy bestseller in 1998. Sullum is a graduate of Cornell University, where he majored in economics and psychology. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and daughter.