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Corporate free speech protects violent video games

By Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist May/June 2006

Over 50 years of psychological research have clearly established a causal link between children’s exposure to media violence, such as that found in violent video games, and subsequent aggression. In fact, in July 2000 six major professional societies, including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association, signed a joint statement concluding that “… at this time, well over 1,000 studies … point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.”

In another major review of research on violent media, the authors of the review noted that support for the media violence effect is stronger than evidence linking condom use to the prevention of sexually transmitted HIV and passive smoking at work to lung cancer. And in yet another recent review specifically focused on violent video games, the authors concluded that “… exposure to video games poses a public health threat to children and youth.”

This is about as convincing as behavioral research gets. Yet a funny thing happened to this research on the way to the news media. Its findings were reversed. Thus, since the early 1980s, while evidence was mounting in support of the violence media effect news reports increasingly cast doubt on the strength of the findings, calling them weak and inconclusive. The stronger the scientific results, the more the news media challenged or ignored them.

Why has this happened? One major reason is that the news industry has a vested interest in promoting violent media. Television and cable networks (the producers of news programs) and entertainment companies (the producers of violent media) are often owned by the same large media corporations. Further, the news industry frequently generates revenues by airing commercials for violent media. Thus, psychologists and others who care about reducing violence in childhood by reducing children’s exposure to violent media find themselves up against powerful media corporations that are willing to distort and lie about scientific evidence to protect their profits.

The success of the entertainment business in discrediting psychological research on media violence is well illustrated by the attempts of several states to protect children from the extreme violence now routinely found in many video games. Each year these videos become more graphic and gruesome.

To cite two recent examples, JFK Reloaded is a popular game that reenacts the assassination of the president. Grand Theft Auto 3 portrays the brutal murder of women, minorities, the elderly and police officers. Seventy percent of teenage boys report having played it. Moreover, a growing body of research on violent video games indicates that children’s exposure to the games is associated with increased short-term aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal and a reduction in prosocial behavior.

In response to escalating video game violence, Illinois, Washington, Michigan and California have passed laws blocking the sales of ultra-violent video games to children, while about half the states are considering similar legislation. However, in the four states that have passed laws the courts have either overturned or delayed implementation of the legislation, citing the free speech rights of video game manufacturers as a primary reason.

An important consideration, as one California judge wrote, is the industry’s ability to raise serious questions about “whether there is a causal connection between access to such games and psychological and other harms to children.”
There is, of course, far less research specifically on the effects of violent video games on aggression than on violent media in general. The courts may not take the larger body of research into account in their decisions about video games. But the issues here are more political and economic than scientific, as I indicate below, and psychologists will need to actively enter into these public spheres in order to fulfill their role in protecting children from violent media.

Corporate free speech
The constant stream of ads for violent video games to which children are exposed is part of a much larger, corporate-driven phenomenon that I call the commercialization of childhood. Over the last two decades there has been an explosion of marketing of junk food, alcohol, tobacco and sexually provocative clothing to children. The overarching message is one promoting materialistic values. The adoption of materialistic values in turn contributes to children’s depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms and low self-esteem.

Further, the commercialization of childhood itself is a manifestation of deep systemic problems that exist within corporate capitalism, our nation’s economic system. Although this is a vast topic, I would like to focus on one systemic problem of corporate capitalism that is particularly relevant to the promotion of violent media, which is corporate personhood. This may seem a far cry from the typical concerns of psychologists, but I will try to demonstrate that psychologists will ultimately need to challenge corporate personhood if they want to effectively counteract the influence of violent media.

Since the 1880s, courts have granted corporations the status of legal persons. This is a bizarre ruling, given the fact that corporations are not people and that no other institutions have been granted the extremely privileged status of legal personhood. As it stands, corporations can claim the same rights as flesh and blood people, such as the First Amendment right to free speech. And they do.

Citing their status as legal persons, in recent years corporations have successfully framed attempts to limit their ability to market to children as violations of their right to free speech, as we saw in connection to violent video games. Until corporate personhood – the basis of corporate free speech – is revoked, it is highly unlikely that our society will be able to protect children from the massive marketing of violent video games.

What do these legal considerations have to do with the field of psychology? It is entirely appropriate for our profession to document the negative psychological effects of unjust laws and rulings and to work to overturn them, be it through direct advocacy, public education, research or clinical practice. Corporate personhood is an unjust ruling in need of such research and challenge.

The systemic problems that underlie corporate capitalism, such as corporate personhood and corporate free speech, are not well understood by most psychologists, partly because these problems are economic and considered beyond the purview of our field. Given how powerful and destructive corporations have become, however, it is time for our profession to turn its attention to the emotional damage created by economic systems and to the psychological harm that results from corporate capitalism.

In so doing we begin to connect the dots between corporate personhood, corporate free speech, the commercialization of childhood, the marketing of violent video games and childhood aggression. Such a broad approach holds much promise for the protection of our children from corporate aggression and for the creation of a more peaceful future.


Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., a Berkeley child, family and adult psychologist, is a founder of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood – www.commercialfreechildhood.org – and was a consultant to the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Advertising and Children. He is co-editor of Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World and of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind.

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