Testimony presented to
By Daphne White
My name is Daphne White and I am Executive Director of The Lion & Lamb Project, a national grassroots parents initiative founded in 1995. The mission of The Lion & Lamb Project is to stop the marketing of violence to children. We do this by helping parents, industry and government officials recognize that violence is not childs play and by galvanizing concerned adults to take action.
I am speaking to you today as a mother of a 13-year-old boy, and as a former journalist who spent 20 years writing about education and family issues. I became concerned about media violence when my son was two years old, and I noticed that violence was being marketed even to toddlers. I left journalism and became an activist when I learned that violent media images have been shown to have lasting negative effects on the attitude and behavior of children, especially young children under the age of 8.
I am here representing millions of parents who want to tell the entertainment industry what that news anchorman shouted in the movie Network: "Im mad as hell and Im not going to take it anymore!"
We are here today to examine the entertainment industry's efforts to curb children's exposure to violent content, and specifically their efforts at reform since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report came out in September 2001.
In its September report, the FTC found that the video game, movie and music industries were indeed marketing adult-level violence to children in a "pervasive and aggressive" way.
Some of the specific findings were indeed shocking but perhaps they were more "shocking" to the innocent industry executives than to the weary parents of young children, who had been on the receiving end of these marketing tactics for years. The FTC found, among other things, that children as young as nine years old were being used in focus groups to test R-rated movies; that internal marketing plans for R-rated movies and M-rated video games admitted that teens were the real audience for these adult-rated products; and that R-rated movies were being advertised directly to children in camps and at Boys and Girls Clubs.
I am sure the industry representatives assembled here today will tell you that all these practices have now stopped, that violence is no longer marketed to children, and that government need do nothing else to protect Americas children. Nothing could be further from the truth! As a parent, I can tell you that our children are still exposed to violent "entertainment" every single day.
It is important to understand that "entertainment" violence is neither innocuous nor harmless. On July 26, 2000, representatives of six public health organizations presented a Joint Letter to the Congress on this very topic.
"The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children," according the statement. It was signed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
If any of you work with the scientific community, you know how hard it is to get six organizations to agree to anything. While the entertainment industry pays its own consultants to debunk this research, I want to make it clear that the scientific consensus is clear: Numerous studies "point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children," according to the public health groups.
In fact, while most of the long-term research focused on television violence which is a passive viewing of violence -- preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact of interactive violence may be "significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies or music," according to the Joint Statement.
Because of the public health implications of this issue, the Senate asked the FTC for a follow-up report, released in April, to assess how much progress had been made by industry since September. In that second report, the FTC found that the movie and video game industries have made "some" progress, but the music industry has made none. Much work remains to be done by all three industries. As a parents organization, we would agree with that assessment.
If I were to grade the three industry groups on their progress, I would give the music industry an "F," the movie industry a "D-minus" and the video game industry a "D-plus." The FTC did say that the video game industry has done "more" than the other industries, and that their ratings system are "better." However, since the other two industries deserve lousy grades, "better" than lousy is still far from good. I expect better than "Ds" from my son, and I expect better grades from "entertainment" industries that currently earn billions of dollars from parents nationwide.
Am I just a tough grader? I dont think so. I believe these grades reflect reality the reality parents live with every day. I travel across the country frequently, offering parenting workshops dealing with the issue of media violence. I have been to towns as remote as Sitka, Alaska and Chautauqua, New York. Everywhere I travel, parents are concerned about the level of violence that is marketed to ever-younger children.
Let me give you some examples of the types of marketing that is still taking place today, 10 months after the original Federal Trade Commission report came out. Lets start with the video game industry, as this industry claims to have done the best job in reforming its practices.
Here is a recent Toys R Us circular Toys R Us, let us remember, is a toy store. It sells toys to children. But here is an ad showing a young boy surrounded by Game Boys the platform geared most specifically to children and a variety of video games. This looks like a child-friendly page, and features an array of 14 games including Donkey Kong, Frogger and Scooby Doo. (These games are all rated "E" for Everyone by industry ratings group the Entertainment Software Review Board, or ESRB.)
But a closer looks shows that snuck in among the many childrens games rated "E" on this page are two very adult games: Perfect Dark and Conkers Bad Fur Day, both rated "M" for mature. Children, as well as their parents, will likely conclude that all the games on this Toys R Us circular page are appropriate for youth.
They would be wrong, of course. Here is one section from a New York Times review of Perfect Dark: "Swarms of deadly enemies must be eliminated & shooting accurately at bad guys takes enormous amounts of practice & Practice pays off & and yes, blood splatters the walls and floors behind and beneath enemies on the receiving end of your arsenal."
Perfect Dark is a Nintendo game that looks and feels like an older game called Goldeneye 007. The James Bond-based Goldeneye -- one of the most violent first-person shooter games I have ever seen was somehow rated "T" for Teen, and was very popular with teens. While Perfect Dark is now rated "M" for Mature, placing an ad for this game in the midst of kids titles is clearly an effort to target market this adult game to children.
Conkers Bad Fur Day is also rated "M" for Mature. According to Nintendo, this risqué game is purely an entry for adults. So why are they advertising the game in a Toys R Us catalogue? And why is this game about a "hung-over, foulmouthed squirrel" (in the words of the Village Voice) coming out in an "E"- rated version for the Game Boy??
Oni is another violent video game rated T" for Teen that often finds its way onto the E-rated pages of Toys R Us. Here is how one New York Times reviewer described this game: First, he complained that when playing many other first-person shooter games, such as the adult-rated Quake III Arena, he "barely felt a thing" when "shooting a fellow in the back with a rocket."
"With Oni," he raved, "Im involved. Its hard not to be involved when you can hear your enemys neck snap." And how is this Play Station 2 game rated? Oni is rated "T," for teenagers! Look for it at your local Toys R Us, between Conker the hung-over squirrel and Reader Rabbit, which just happens to be a child-friendly educational video game.
These are just some examples of how the video game industry markets violent games to children. The Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry trade association, has so far refused to adopt the three very reasonable and modest recommendations for reform proposed in the September FTC report. As a result, the April follow-up FTC report found that most video game companies are still advertising adult-rated video games in magazines with a large under-17 audience.
We agree with the FTC finding that the video industry can do much more than it is now doing to stop the marketing of violence to children. But I also agree with IDSA President Doug Lowenstein on one point. In his address to the annual industry trade show E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, Mr. Lowenstein noted how video games are now ubiquitous in the home, in cars and vans, in military settings, on airplanes, on the Internet& and even in schools.
He described an interactive video game that is now being used in Willard Model Elementary School in Norfolk, VA. "Its just a matter of time before more and more games will be used as teaching tools," Mr. Lowenstein said. I agree that video games can and are used as teaching tools. The question, Mr. Lowenstein, is what kinds of lessons will video games teach our children in the future?
Will video game technology continue to teach children to feel satisfaction in snapping necks, running over pedestrians, blowing policemen to pieces, and eviscerating people? Or will this technology be used to teach values that most American parents feel comfortable with?
Now lets turn to the movie industry. Again, "some" progress has been made but not nearly enough. The industry has also refused to accept the threshold recommendations for reform proposed in the FTC report.
True, R-rated previews "appropriate for all audiences" are no longer shown before G-rated matinees. But previews for R-rated features are still shown before PG-13 features, which are largely aimed at teens. And studios are still advertising R-rated movies during television programs most popular with teens.
Finally, the movie and television industries are still airing R-rated movies such as Scream during a time when many children are watching. In the case of Scream and Scream 2, which aired in January 2001, that time was 8 p.m. And just to make sure kids knew about this televised movie, Fox advertised the film during the after-school cartoon programs, when the greatest number of children are watching television.
I wont go even begin to talk about how inappropriate the current movie rating system is and how much violence is considered "appropriate" for PG-13, PG and even G-rated movies. But I can tell you that many parents are appalled at the scenes they see, with their children, when they take them to movies the industry assures them are "appropriate" for children.
The FTC recommends that each of the industries should "establish or expand codes that prohibit target marketing to children and impose sanctions for violations." So, what has the movie industry done? They came up with a 12-step plan poetically stating that R-rated films will not be "inappropriately specifically" targeted to children. Inappropriately specifically? That phrase alone would earn a D-minus in most high school writing classes.
We found the movie industrys 12-step plan so full of loopholes that any mom could drive a mini-van through it. So after the second set of Senate hearings in which each of the seven studio heads appeared to commit to slightly different "specific and inappropriate" reforms we sent a simple, 14-question survey to all the studio heads who had testified.
As a parent group, we wanted to understand a few simple facts, such as:
Not one studio bothered to answer a single one of these questions. Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America assures parents that their rating system and their 12-step program are there for the sole purpose of helping parents make wise choices. But in truth, when a parents group such as ours asks for information, the movie industry cant come up with even "yes" or "no" answers to simple questions.
Instead of direct responses to our survey questions, we received a letter from the MPAA with the same vague 12-step program attached, along with the confusing Senate testimony they had already presented. Let me just say that even though that questionnaire was mailed out 10 months ago, I would still be happy to receive simple "yes" or "no" answers today.
I would like to add that IDSA has been equally uncooperative in answering our questions. In the FTCs April report which IDSA claims it passed with flying colors the agency mentioned some new marketing and advertising policies the video game industry has adopted. When we requested information about those policies from the IDSA, our phone calls were not returned. We had to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the FTC to get the information. Eventually we received that information, after paying the FTC a fee.
Meanwhile, the ESRB the fabled ratings board that boasts its system is superior to all others is fighting our request to the bitter end. As a parents group, we would like to know: Where are the teeth?? What specific guidelines have video game companies adapted to stop the marketing of violence to children? And what sanctions do companies face if they dont comply with these voluntary guidelines?
We believe this information should be public. If the video game industry is really so proud of its voluntary self-enforcement system, they should be eager to display that system to parents and other concerned adults. Show us your voluntary system, and how you will enforce it. That way, parents will have more confidence in your industry.
To date, I am sorry to report, we have seen nothing from the ESRB. Our FOIA request is still pending, four months after the April FTC report was issued.
About the music industry: I wont say much beyond what my Russian grandmother would have said -- their total and unequivocal refusal to reform their marketing system is "beneath contempt."
Like the movie and video game industries, the music industry likes to hide behind the fig leaf of the First Amendment. But as Justice Potter Stewart once said, "You are all confused about what you have a right to do under the Constitution and the right thing to do."
I am a mother, not a constitutional lawyer. But I would like to quote former Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow, who wrote: "It would surely come as a surprise to those who wrote the First Amendment to see that Americans now cite it not to begin discussion of the public interest, but as a reason to close it."
Lets get real here: These three entertainment industries are not really in the business of protecting the First Amendment. They are in the business of promoting their members bottom line. But at what cost? I am here to tell you, as a mother, that this cost involves our childrens lives.
To quote Newton Minow once again, "The First Amendment is considered a preferred freedom one that, when balanced against other rights, gets the benefit of the doubt but it is not an absolute freedom. It cannot be exercised at the expense of other constitutional rights or, in narrowly defined categories, contrary to public safety or well-being."
The First Amendment was designed for political speech: Until very recently, commercial speech was not accorded nearly the same rights as political speech. Likewise, the First Amendment has allowed for the protection of children; for example, it is no longer legal to advertise alcohol, or cigarettes, or pornography to children. Corporations can no longer argue that restricting the marketing of those products has rung a death knell for the First Amendment.
I ask you today, as the Representatives of parents across the country, to broaden your thinking about the First Amendment, and the protection that should be accorded children under this Amendment.
I also urge you to consider holding a separate set of congressional hearings on these First Amendment issues, so a real debate about this amendment can take place. Right now, Im afraid, the First Amendment is being used by industry as the first and best tool to close debate, not to open debate.
In conclusion, I would like the members of this subcommittee to consider follow-up actions to todays oversight hearing. All manner of violence is still being marketed to children, as I have demonstrated. The First Amendment is not an excuse to do nothing it is a challenge to do more to protect the freedom of parents and children alike. Freedom to live in a peaceful, nonviolent, and civil society.
I also ask the three industries represented here today to clean up their marketing practices toward children, voluntarily adopt the FTC recommendations, and set up stringent, transparent and enforceable self-regulatory provisions to stop the types of marketing efforts discussed here.
If the industries fail to adopt these standards voluntarily, I ask this subcommittee to consider putting legislative teeth behind the FTC recommendations.
Americas parents Americas children deserve better marketing, and better entertainment, than we are getting. Parents should not be forced by these media companies to become policemen and women in their own homes to constantly say "no!" to our children when it comes to movies and music and video games.
The type of ubiquitous, never-ending marketing of violence to children must stop. Violence is not childs play. We have enough public health research now to know the potential damage that can occur. What will it take to make these companies behave responsibly?
I hope it does not take another Columbine, or another 13-year-old shooting a teacher, or another 8-year-old shooting a classmate. It might take some self-restraint on the part of industry. It might take some legislation. I implore you as members of Congress, on behalf of all the parents and concerned adults in your districts and throughout this country, to do your part to stop this blatant marketing of violence to our children.