Tag Archives: teen violence

Throwback Thursday: The Comic Book Panic


Every decade or so, we seem to have a cultural panic about something teens are into. These days, it’s violent video games, but that was far from the first target. Before that, it was heavy metal and role-playing games. The pattern repeats at least back to the 1950s, when the freakout of the times was over comic books and their alleged link to juvenile delinquency. This freakout went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It also got to the point where magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal were describing the perils of comic books, an idea we mostly laugh at today. The article claims, for example, that the books’ detailed descriptions of crime teach kids how to become criminals. Like many anti-media pieces, it lists in great detail (and without context) the violent deeds described in the stories, as if a roundup is enough to explain the problems inherent in reading these books. It also, typically, cites an increase in “juvenile delinquency” and describes a number of youth-committed crimes in depth, with vague references to comic books (one young criminal’s older brother blames them, for example; I’m sure he’s an authority on the subject).

And, like every other teen pastime, so many kids were reading comics that there’s no real way to say the books — more than any other factor — inspired youths to commit crimes or even just act out. Sure, all of the crimes described in the magazine article can be found in comics, but so can plenty of other things that adults wouldn’t and didn’t find objectionable. Did those aspects of comics inspire teen behavior, too, or just the bad bits? Or maybe kids, like adults, like to see, hear, and read thrilling fiction because it’s just that — fiction.

One reason I like to look back on these moral panics is to show how we feel about them with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. Has any wave of youth violence ever been credibly linked to media? The answer, again and again, is no. So why do we keep blaming their interests?

“This guy got really mad, and he didn’t know how to control himself. People think I helped him.” “Did you?”

Kat Chandler’s short film, “Black Metal,” is getting its big break at the Sundance Film Festival this month. In just a few minutes, the film explores a gruesome murder loosely tied to the music of a heavy-metal band. Only this time, it looks at the situation from the perspective of the musician whose work is linked to the killing. It’s a sensitive, emotional take on the topic, and doesn’t answer very many questions, leaving the viewer to reflect on whether this common scapegoat is really part of the problem.

Given my perspective on the topic, I have mixed feelings about Chandler’s film. On the one hand, I like the suggestion that this musician is baffled and upset by the blame, and the fact that the film mostly makes that blame appear misplaced. I also like the fact that it doesn’t overtly preach an answer; being too heavy-handed would be less effective. But I wonder whether this film is going to change the mind of someone who is already convinced that extreme music directly encourages its listeners to commit violence. I hope so, but part of me doubts it.

Corey Mitchell, a true-crime writer and metalhead who consulted on the film, said this on Invisible Oranges:

Just to be clear, I would not have taken the gig if Kat’s intention was to declare metal responsible for violent crimes.

What do you think the film says? And what do you think of the way in which it says it?

Teens aren’t buying violent games, but people keep buying bad science

Teens have an easier time buying M-rated games at Walmart than at other stores, but it still isn’t that easy. Photo by Flickr user afcool83.

The Federal Trade Commission once again sent its minions undercover shoppers to buy video games, and here’s what they found: only 13% of minors who attempted to buy M-rated games, which are intended for adult audiences, were able to do so. The rest were turned away. By comparison, 33% of teens who tried to buy an R-rated DVD could do so, 38% of teens who tried were able to get into an R-rated movie, and 64% were able to buy albums with “parental advisory stickers.” In other words, voluntary controls on the sale of M-rated games are working well — better, in fact, than controls on R-rated films, which are illegal for teens under 17 to see without adult supervision.

Which really just leaves one question: Why do we need Leland Yee’s game-sales ban, again?

Actually, among other things the numbers suggest that many teens aren’t playing these games, but when they are, a parent or other adult is purchasing it for them. It’s anyone’s guess whether those parents are paying attention to what they’re buying, but considering they’re plunking down $60 for these things, it probably crosses their minds to look at the box. In this way, not much would change if Yee’s law passes.

As Yee awaits the decision of the Supreme Court, researchers are finding new ways to say violent video games are bad for kids. This time, they analyzed the track records of the experts who signed briefs in the Supreme Court case. Unfortunately, their findings heap bad science on top of more bad science. Let’s break it down:

First, who authored the study? Brad Bushman, a researcher whose work consistently finds that violent media is linked with aggression; Craig Anderson, another researcher whose own work links media and aggression; and attorney Deana Pollard Sacks, whose primary written work seems to focus on pornography and corporal punishment of children.

Can you guess what they found?

The results showed that 60 percent of the Gruel brief signers (who believe video game violence is harmful) have published at least one scientific study on aggression or violence in general, compared to only 17 percent of the Millett brief signers.

Moreover, when the researchers looked specifically at the subject of media violence, 37 percent of Gruel brief signers have published at least one study in that area, compared to just 13 percent of the Millett brief signers.

Wow. They found that their side made more noise than the other side. What a surprise!

Okay, let’s break it down some more. This wasn’t an analysis of every study that has been published on the topic of video games and their influence. This was an analysis of who signed a court document. Given that those who oppose violent video games are in the weaker position before the Supreme Court, it makes sense that more of them would come forward.

Second, the research showing the positive side of violent video games is much more recent. That group, if it is indeed smaller, may be smaller because it’s still catching up.

Oh, but it gets better:

Results showed that signers of the Gruel brief had published over 48 times more studies in top-tier journals than did those who signed the Millett brief.

“That’s a staggering difference,” Bushman said. “It provides strong support for the argument that video game violence is indeed harmful.”

Considering none of these studies shows that violent video games harm kids, no, it doesn’t mean that at all. At most, studies are able to show a correlation between gaming and brief increases in aggressive feelings. Most of the studies don’t even show that much conclusively. I’ll say it again: correlation is not causation. There’s just as much evidence to suggest that kids with more aggression to burn are turning to video games as an outlet. Many researchers say so in their own conclusions.

Like I said, bad science on top of bad science.

Oh, and by the way? Juvenile violent crime is decreasing. It dropped 2% between 2007 and 2008 (the most recent years for which the federal Office of Juvenile Justice has statistics), “continuing a recent decline.”

Parents, when you’re shopping for games with (or for) your kids, do you look at the rating on the box? How does that shape your decision whether to buy the game?