Surgeon Gen. Links TV with Real Violence:

Report finds repeated early childhood exposure to intense shows, video games causes aggressive behavior.

Los Angeles Times
January 17, 2021
by Jeff Leeds, Times Staff Writer

"Youth Violence:
A Report of the Surgeon General"

The U.S. surgeon general is poised to declare graphically violent television programming and video games harmful to children, marking a potential watershed in the debate over government regulation of entertainment. In a report on youth violence scheduled for release in Washington today, Surgeon General David Satcher will find repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behavior throughout a child's life, according to a draft of the report obtained by The Times. "Exposure to violent media plays an important causal role in this societal problem" of youth violence, the draft report states. "From a public-health perspective, today's [media] consumption patterns are far from optimal. And for many children they are clearly harmful."

The findings, while representing a small portion of a wide-ranging report on youth violence, are expected to fuel the push by parents groups, politicians and some retailers to limit violence in entertainment. The full report addresses several factors contributing to youth violence, including home environment, school programs and the socioeconomic background of individuals, according to sources involved in preparing the document. But the conclusions about media violence could resonate the loudest in Hollywood, where the entertainment industry has long asserted that artists' free-speech rights shielded them from legal limits on the content they create. By using the weight of his office to validate existing research on exposure to violence, Satcher is turning what has been a legal debate into a public-health issue, associating the effects of media violence with those of cigarette smoking. The report has been eagerly awaited on Capitol Hill, but Satcher apparently was not subject to political pressure to rush its release. His term lasts until 2002.

While declining to comment directly on the report, Satcher said he had not intended to point fingers at Hollywood. "We didn't decide to take on anybody. What we decided to do was to look at all the factors related to youth violence," he said. To address the problem, the draft report said, parents should consider using televisions equipped with the V-chip screening device and more closely monitor their children's media consumption. It also encouraged more federal research on the subject. Several entertainment executives declined to comment, saying they had not seen the full report. But many were quick to take aim at past scientific research linking Hollywood creations to real-world violence. The draft report also essentially dismissed conflicting research. Instead, it suggests the statistical evidence linking media violence and aggressive behavior is similar in strength to the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer.

In the current political climate, the surgeon general's report could carry even more weight. It was a surgeon general's report in 1964 linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer that led to warning labels on cigarette packaging. But it's unlikely Satcher will call for similar labels warning of the health effects of media violence. However, coming on the heels of last year's Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of sexual and violent content to children, Satcher's report may spark renewed interest in the regulation of entertainment. "I think it's significant, particularly as a capstone on what so many other studies have said," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the leading critics of Hollywood. He added that the report should provide an impetus within the industry to produce less violent television programming and films.

The report was requested by the White House and key lawmakers in 1999 after two teens opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 12 students and a teacher. The report was prepared by a team of 21 researchers assembled by the National Institutes of Health. No sitting surgeon general has addressed the issue so directly since Jesse Steinfeld, who in 1972 issued a report on the subject and testified before Congress that television violence "does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society." Although some research conflicts with the basic premise that media violence fosters aggression, the team writing the draft report was dominated by researchers who have long believed that watching violent TV or films has an adverse effect on children. The team didn't include any representatives of the entertainment industry. The surgeon general's office didn't conduct any studies of its own, citing instead a raft of previous research on the subject. Studies used in writing the report found, for example, that people who had frequently watched "Road Runner" cartoons or "Starsky and Hutch" as children in the 1970s were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior 15 years later. Men who as boys had watched violence most frequently, that study found, had "pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouse" at twice the rate of other men and had been convicted of crimes at three times the rate of other men. Similar effects were found for women.

In another study cited by the authors, college students who played the violent video game "Marathon 2" generated 43% more aggressive responses in later tests than those who played a nonviolent game. And in another study, researchers found that young black men who watched a violent rap music video were more likely to endorse the use of violence in a hypothetical conflict situation than those who watched a nonviolent rap video.

But this body of research has long been criticized by the entertainment industry as incomplete or unrealistic. "The scientific evidence is murky. The conclusions of some of these people don't measure up," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Valenti added that many violence studies are flawed because they are usually done in laboratories, and that it is impossible to predict future behavior based on exposure toviolence. "You can be a football player and be aggressive. That doesn't mean that when you grow up you want to blow somebody's head off," Valenti said. That said, Valenti insisted that Hollywood is more sensitive to violence issues and has been abiding by its pledge to curtail the marketing of violent movies to children and teens.

Times staff writers James Bates in Los Angeles and Marlene Cimons in Washington contributed to this story.