A Free Speech Challenge for Parents

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.

Space does not allow for a full consideration of the effects of using violent
video games. I spend an entire class period in my course on child development
discussing violent media. Among the well-established effects is that users of
violent media are more likely to believe that crime victims deserved their
fate. In addition, users of violent media have a distorted view of the world,
believing life to be significantly less safe than it is.

It is true that people who are prone to aggressiveness are more likely to use
violent media. It is also true that people who use violent media become more
aggressive. None of us want to believe that we will acquire a taste for the
distasteful, but if we consume enough of what began as distasteful, it becomes

Make no mistake about it; video games can be a great use of free time. Research
shows that kids who play video games develop better spatial skills and hand-eye
coordination. They are also just plain fun. Yet the benefits of video games do
not require gruesome images.

We endure a lot of ugliness to protect our right to free speech. Like Justices
Clarence Thomas and Steven Breyer, I do not believe that restricting the sale
of violent video games to people 18 and older would have strained the First
Amendment. With or without laws that require adult involvement for kids to have
questionable material, parents must be parents. Laws are no substitute for
parental monitoring. While I find the Court’s decision disappointing, it
highlights the need for parents to be proactive and willing to make tough

— Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a
researcher with [2]The Center for Vision & Values.

[3]www.VisionAndValues.org | [4]www.VisionAndValuesEvents.com


1. http://www.visionandvalues.org/2011/07/a-free-speech-challenge-for-parents/
2. http://www.visionandvalues.org/
3. http://www.VisionAndValues.org/
4. http://www.VisionAndValuesEvents.com/
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