To many, it seems like a no-brainer: Exposing children to excessive violence in movies, music, and video games may be harmful.
But how to keep such entertainment away from the eyes and ears of youngsters is proving to be a vexing problem for would-be regulators - from Congress, to the presidential candidates, to industry executives themselves.
Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee spent the day debating how far lawmakers need to go - or legally can go - to control the dissemination of violence-laced imagery. The hearing follows Monday's release of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study, which claims that the entertainment industry has been pitching violent content to young children and teens.
What is to be done is under discussion, but everyone agrees that tighter regulation of this industry will be incredibly difficult.
One of the biggest hurdles is simply that the link between kids' behavior and violent movies, lyrics, and videogames is hard to prove with scientific certainty. Even when cause and effect are more conclusive - as in the case of tobacco and health problems - it took decades of battle in Congress and the courts to ban certain kinds of cigarette advertising and sales.
"This is not like the connection between [smoking and illness]. You can't draw that scientific conclusion," says Bob Alexander, a media consultant who works with movie studios, video-game publishers, and TV networks. "You might find that product objectionable and you might be afraid when you see a bunch of kids on the street, but those two things happen in your mind, not in theirs."
Still, those pushing for greater regulation of the entertainment industry believe they can act without such conclusive proof, so long as they don't trample the free-speech rights of artists and the public.
While regulating the content of songs or movies is prohibited, experts see wider latitude for controlling advertising for such products. Ads fall under the label of "commercial speech," that is, speech motivated by financial interests. The US Supreme Court has ruled that commercial speech is entitled to some protection under the Constitution - but also that it can be regulated, even if all that the ads claim is true.
Still, the free-speech questions are prickly enough that government usually opts for industry self-regulation - in everything from funeral homes to alcohol. Indeed, the liquor industry has voluntarily refrained from TV advertising of all hard liquor for almost 50 years.
"The FTC has broad jurisdiction over most sectors of commerce, but we encourage self-regulation," says Mary Engle, project director of the FTC report on entertainment-industry marketing practices. "It tends to be much …