Joseph Horton

Should a 13-year-old be able to purchase a school-shooting simulator without parents' knowledge or consent?

The Supreme Court says that freedom of speech requires that 13-year-olds have that opportunity. In a 7-2 decision, the court struck down a California law barring the sale of graphically violent video games to people under 18.

I have not seen legal minds commenting on what seem (to me) to be obvious consequences of this decision. If the First Amendment requires that minors be able to purchase graphically violent video games, does this mean minors may attend R-rated movies without an adult or purchase pornography? We have longstanding traditions and laws which regulate the speech to which minors may be exposed without the consent of their parents.

The research on the effects of violent video games shows that parents and society have reason to be concerned. Today, we are not talking about the games from my youth like Space Invaders or games that involved a cartoon-like image of a person falling over. We are talking about games with graphic, movie-quality images of death and dismemberment. Unlike a movie, however, which is viewed passively, game players are actively causing the scenes which unfold before them.

Yes, video games are pretend. Of course, they are. Even young teenagers who play the games know they are pretend. Yet, even passively viewing pretend images affects the way people think. Television commercials are pretend. We all know they are pretend. The reason some of the most successful businesses in the world advertise-even paying over $2,000,000 for a 30-second Super Bowl spot-is not to generously provide free television for us; it is because they have data showing that advertising changes consumers' attitudes and behavior. Active participation, like playing a video game, changes attitudes and behavior more efficiently than passively watching TV.

Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars? No. Very few kids who play violent video games will perform those acts in real life. The changes most kids will experience as a result of playing violent video games are more subtle than mass murder, but are still quite measurable.

For example, greater exposure to violent media desensitizes people to the effects of violence and aggression. What would have been abhorrent, or should be, becomes not so bad or perhaps even funny. Violent video games cause users to think more violent thoughts. Typical behavioral effects from these changes in thinking might range from not being appropriately moved by images of real human suffering to being more argumentative and disrespectful.

Joseph Horton

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values. Among the courses he teaches are Marriage and Family Assessment and Intervention, Child Development, Foundations of Psychological Science, and Advanced Research Methods. Dr. Horton earned his Ph. D. and master's degrees from The Pennsylvania State University with an emphasis in developmental psychology. He is particularly interested in reasoning in young children, character development in adolescents as well as marriage and the impact of marriage on children. Dr. Horton is part The Center for Research on Positive Youth Development at Grove City College. The research done by the center has been funded by the John Templeton Foundation. He serves as board chair of Pregnancy Services of Western Pennsylvania, a pro-life, Christian pregnancy help center. In his spare time, he enjoys watching college football with his family and taking his daughter to dog shows.

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