Dr. Louis Z. Cooper, President American Academy of Pediatrics
141 North Point Blvd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60607-1098
Re: AAP’s New Policy on Media Violence
Dear Dr. Cooper:
We write to ask you to reconsider the AAP’s November 2001 Policy Statement on Media Violence. It contains many misstatements about social-science research on media effects. Your organization’s views about the mass media’s impact on children are entitled to respect, but professional opinion should not be confused with scientific evidence.
It is not true, for example, that “more than 3500 research studies have examined the association between media violence and violent behavior [and] all but 18 have shown a positive relationship.” The source you cite for this assertion, ex-Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s Teaching Our Kids to Kill, is not a scholarly work, nor does your Statement even transcribe Grossman’s claims accurately. In fact, there are probably fewer than 300 empirical studies that try to measure the effects of violent media – with uneven and ambiguous results.
Even more troubling than the AAP’s factual inaccuracies are its overall distortions and its failure to acknowledge many serious questions about the interpretation of media violence studies. For example, correlations between aggressive behavior and preference for violent entertainment do not demonstrate that one causes the other. Laboratory experiments that are designed to test causation rely on substitutes for aggression, some quite far-fetched. Punching Bobo dolls, pushing buzzers, and recognizing “aggressive words” on a computer screen are all a far cry from real-world aggression.
Some studies have found increased aggressive behavior among children after watching nonviolent programs such as “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Others have found “null” effects. Many studies that claim “positive” findings actually consisted of multiple subtests with divergent and ambiguous results. The researchers then manipulated the data, subdividing the categories of subjects in various ways until they found at least one “statistically significant” result.
As the Federal Trade Commission noted in its recent report on marketing violent entertainment, “violence” has been defined by researchers in many different ways; aggressive play as measured in a laboratory experiment or even in a schoolyard is far different from real-world aggressive behavior; and the many different risk factors that lead to aggression make it difficult “to isolate the independent effect of media violence.” The FTC concluded that no firm conclusions can be drawn from the ambiguous and problematic empirical research on media effects.
Your Statement’s use of violent crime statistics is also highly misleading. You rely on a limited and outdated period (1984-94) for your claim that juvenile crime rates are increasing. In fact, the FBI’s 2000 Uniform Crime Report figures show that for youths aged 10-17, rates of violent crime are at their lowest level since 1987. In the ten-year period between 1990 and 2000, juvenile violence arrest rates fell 27% (including a record 68% drop in homicides). Yet throughout the 1990s, there was if anything an increase in fantasy violence on TV and in films, music, and video games. Far from suggesting a relationship between violent media and real-world violence, the crime statistics for the last decade suggest the opposite.
Many scholars believe that trying to understand the media’s impact on human development through laboratory measurements and other numerical methods is inherently flawed. Instead, they look at the content of popular culture in the larger context of children’s and adolescents’ lives. As your Policy Statement itself acknowledges, the effect of violent entertainment depends on context: Macbeth and The Iliad are not the same as Bugs Bunny or Superman. Similarly, much depends on the mental equipment and background that viewers bring to TV, movies, or video games.
Your Policy Statement, in short, not only disserves science, it disserves youth. The unending political crusades on this issue, abetted by professional organizations like AAP, have crowded out discussion of proven health dangers to kids, such as child abuse, child poverty, and family violence. This may make our politicians happy, but we should expect more of physicians.
We would be happy to meet with you at any time to discuss this subject. There is a solid body of literature detailing all of the uncertainties and ambiguities surrounding media violence research, which we wold be glad to share with you.
We await your response.
Marjorie Heins, Free Expression Policy Project
Professor Jib Fowles, University of Houston
Professor Henry Giroux, Pennsylvania State University
Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands
Professor Robert Horwitz, University of California – San Diego
Professor Henry Jenkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Professor Vivian Sobchack, University of California – Los Angeles
Michael Males, Justice Policy Institute, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Richard Rhodes, Science Historian, Pulitzer Prize Laureate
Christopher Finan, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
David Greene, First Amendment Project
On January 14, 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics responded to the media scholars’ letter regarding distortions and inaccuracies in its Policy on Media Violence. Click here for more information about this ongoing debate.