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
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
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
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 more flexible and prompt than government
regulation, and it can be even more effective. …