Protecting Children’s Welfare in an Anxiety-Provoking Media Environment

Joanne Cantor. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Editor: Nancy E Dowd, Dorothy G Singer, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Sage Publication. 2008.

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow but only empties today of its strength.” — Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

In 2000, an intriguing research report suggested that we are living in an age of anxiety. Twenge (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of all the studies produced between 1952 and 1993 in which standard measures of self-reported anxiety were included. The results showed a dramatic, linear increase in anxiety over the years. In fact, the level of anxiety coinciding with the 50th percentile in the early 1990s would have represented the 84th percentile in the 1950s. Although Twenge concluded that the change is most consistent with evolving social forces such as increasing crime rates and decreases in family stability, she also argued that media coverage of unsettling events has led people to perceive a higher level of threat than actually exists. Perhaps not coincidentally over the same years, the amount of time spent watching television in American homes also increased dramatically, from 4.5 hours per day in 1950 to more than 7 hours per day in the 1990s (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001). Research shows that a substantial proportion of what television offers involves violence and other frightening images (Cantor, 1998; Center for Communication and Social Policy, 1998). Although it is difficult to isolate the impact of the media over the course of a half century in which so much social change took place, there is a growing body of literature demonstrating that media exposure contributes to viewers’ anxieties in significant ways—particularly among children.

This chapter summarizes research on the impact of media on children’s fears and anxieties. It describes developmental differences in the media stimuli that frighten children as well as in the coping strategies that are effective for children of different ages. It concludes by describing a series of different approaches that have been taken to attempt to protect children from media-induced harm.

Research on the Media’s Effects on Children’s Fears and Anxieties

Although the relationship between exposure to media violence and antisocial behavior has been a central focus of public debates for decades, researchers have also studied the impact of media on children’s emotions. Blumer (1933) reported that 93% of the children he interviewed had been frightened or horrified by a motion picture. Other researchers in the 1930s and 1940s also noted the prevalence of children’s fright reactions to movies and radio crime dramas (Eisenberg, 1936; Preston, 1941). Early television researchers (Himmelweit, Oppenheim, & Vince, 1958; Schramm, Lyle, & Parker, 1961) explored the frequency with which this new medium induced fright reactions as well. These studies reported that enduring anxieties, sleep disturbances, and nightmares were common consequences of exposure to mass media.

Research interest in the media’s impact on fears reawakened in the 1980s after such frightening films as Jaws, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist became extremely successful, and the press reported ruined beach vacations, extreme emotional reactions, and sleepless nights associated with these movies. Brian R. Johnson (1980) asked a random sample of adults whether they had ever seen a motion picture that disturbed them “a great deal.” Forty percent said they had had such an experience, with 3 days as the median length of the disturbance. Respondents also reported on the type, intensity, and duration of symptoms such as nervousness, depression, fear of specific things, and recurring thoughts and images. Based on these reports, Johnson judged that 48% of these respondents experienced what he termed a “significant stress reaction” for at least 2 days as the result of watching a movie. Johnson argued,

It is one thing to walk away from a frightening or disturbing event with mild residue of the images and quite another thing to ruminate about it, feel anxious or depressed for days, and/or to avoid anything that might create the same unpleasant experience, (p. 786)

Correlational studies have shown that watching television is related to the occurrence of both anxiety and sleep disturbances. A survey of elementary and middle school children reported that the more television a child watched, the more likely he or she was to report the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress (Singer, Slovak, Frierson, & York, 1998). A survey of parents of elementary school children reported that more hours of television viewing (especially at bedtime) were associated with higher rates of nightmares, difficulties with falling asleep, and the inability to sleep through the night (Owens, Maxim, McGuinn, Nobile, Msall, &C Alario, 1999). Nine percent of the children studied experienced television-induced nightmares at least once a week.

Although simple correlational studies cannot rule out the alternative explanation that anxious children or those with sleep problems seek out greater levels of television viewing, a recent longitudinal survey supports the interpretation that viewing precedes and promotes these problems. Jeffrey G. Johnson and colleagues (Johnson, Cohen, Kasen, First, & Brook, 2004) conducted a prospective panel survey that measured children’s television viewing and sleep problems at ages 14, 16, and 22 years. They reported that adolescents who watched more than 3 hours of television at age 14 were significantly more likely than lighter viewers to experience sleep problems at ages 16 and 22, even after controlling for previous sleep problems and other factors such as psychiatric disorders, parental education, income, and neglect. In contrast, early sleep problems were not independently related to later television viewing. Moreover, respondents who reduced their amount of television viewing between the ages of 14 and 16 were significantly less likely to experience sleep disturbances at ages 16 and 22. These findings suggest that heavy viewing leads to difficulty falling asleep and to frequent nighttime awakenings, and that the correlation between viewing and sleep problems is not simply due to sleepless youth turning to television for relief.

Experiments are better suited than correlational studies to determine cause and effect. The problem with experiments, however, is that it is unethical to show frightening television programs and movies to children for the purpose of demonstrating that they produce intense anxieties and sleep disturbances. Experimental research on frightening media employs only small excerpts from frightening programs to test theories regarding age differences or differences in features of presentations (Cantor, 2002). Even though many children are exposed to horrifying media images on their own, the long-term negative effects of these images cannot be studied using experimental procedures.

One way that research has circumvented this ethical obstacle is to study the long-term effects of media exposure through retrospective reports. Adults’ detailed memories of having been frightened by a television show or movie provide vivid evidence of the severity and duration of fear induced by the media. In two independently conducted studies (Harrison & Cantor, 1999; Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999) involving samples of undergraduates from three universities, the presence of vivid memories of enduring media-induced fear was nearly universal. All of the participants in one study (Hoekstra et al., 1999) reported such an incident. In the other study (Harrison & Cantor, 1999), 90% reported an intense fear reaction to something in the media, in spite of the fact that they could have avoided writing a paper and filling out a three-page questionnaire by simply saying they had never had such an experience.

Both studies revealed a variety of intense reactions. In Hoekstra et al.’s (1999) study, 61% of the participants reported a generalized fear or free-floating anxiety after viewing; 46% reported what they called “wild imagination” (“monsters under the bed” or “someone sneaking up on you”); 29% reported a specific fear (e.g., sharks, power tools, spiders); and more than 20% reported a variety of sleep disturbances, including fear of sleeping alone, nightmares, insomnia, or needing to sleep with the lights on. Of the students reporting fright reactions in Harrison and Cantor’s (1999) study, 52% reported disturbances in eating or sleeping, 22% reported mental preoccupation with the disturbing material, and 35% reported subsequently avoiding or dreading the situation depicted in the program or movie. Moreover, one third of those who reported fright said that the fear effects had lasted more than a year. Indeed, more than one fourth of the respondents said that the emotional impact of the program or movie was still with them at the time of reporting, on average 6 years after exposure. Eighty-three percent had viewed the frightening program with someone else. Most reported watching because someone else wanted to watch (44%) or because they stumbled onto it accidentally (12%).

A recent content analysis of more than 500 papers written by students about their fright reactions demonstrates how frequently irrational media-induced fears continue well into adulthood (Cantor, 2004a). The two most commonly cited frightening media offerings in this study were the movies Jaws and Poltergeist. Of the 29 students who wrote about Poltergeist, 72% reported that it had interfered with their ability to sleep, and 76% reported that it had affected their waking behavior, typically making them extremely uncomfortable in the presence of real-world objects similar to threatening objects in the movie (e.g., clowns, trees, televisions). Although all 29 saw the movie before the age of 12, 31% reported lingering effects in adulthood. Of the 23 students who wrote about Jaws, only 39% reported sleep problems, but 83% reported an influence on their waking life. Most effects involved activities in or near water. In fact, 65% indicated the movie made them anxious while swimming. For most, this anxiety occurred not only in the ocean, but in lakes and pools, and other venues without sharks. For 43%, these effects were continuing at the time the papers were written. These findings are consistent with research on the neurophysiology of fear, which shows that intensely traumatic events produce nonconscious memories, including bodily reactions, that are virtually “indelible” (LeDoux, 1996, p. 252; see also Cantor, 2004a).

The research demonstrates, therefore, that television and movies contribute to children’s feelings of anxiety. In some cases, a single exposure to an extremely frightening offering can produce powerful effects that linger and interfere with normal activities. These findings suggest that it is advisable to observe caution in exposing children to mass media and to avoid specific programs and movies that are likely to be intensely frightening. Research demonstrates, however, that what will frighten a child is not always easy to anticipate.

Predicting What Will Be Frightening

It is not difficult to explain why a movie showing bloody shark attacks or a documentary about terrorist attacks would produce fear. However, age differences in cognitive development account for the fact that many children experience intense fear in response to programs and movies that most adults would not consider scary. Cantor and colleagues (see Cantor, 2002, for a review) have conducted a series of studies to explore developmental differences in what frightens children.

The Role of Appearance

The importance of appearance to instilling fright in a child declines as children get older. Preschool children (up to the age of 7 or 8) are more likely to be frightened by something that looks scary but is actually harmless, than by something that looks attractive but is actually harmful. By the end of elementary school, appearance carries much less weight in causing fear, relative to the behavior, destructive potential, or intent of characters or objects. For example, in a survey conducted in 1981 (Cantor & Sparks, 1984), parents were asked to name the programs and movies that had frightened their children the most. Parents of preschool children most often mentioned those with grotesque-looking characters, such as the television series The Incredible Hulk and the movie The Wizard of Oz; parents of older elementary school children more often named programs and movies involving threats that did not have a strong visual component.

Another study looked at children’s reactions to The Incredible Hulk (Sparks & Cantor, 1986) more directly. When children were shown a shortened episode of this program, preschool children reported the most fear after the attractive, mild-mannered hero transformed into the monstrous-looking Hulk in order to save a man who was trapped in a fire. Older elementary school children reported the least fear at this time because they understood that the monster was really the benevolent hero in another form, and that he was using his superhuman power to rescue the man. Preschool children’s unexpectedly intense reactions to this program seem to have been partially due to their over-response to the visual image of the Hulk character and their inability to look beyond his appearance and appreciate his benevolent behavior.

A third study (Hoffner & Cantor, 1985) tested the effect of appearance in a more controlled fashion. A program was created in four versions so that a major character was either attractive and grandmotherly looking or ugly and grotesque, and in her attractive or ugly form she was shown behaving in either a kind or cruel manner. Children in three age groups (3-5, 6-7, and 9-10 years) saw one of these versions and were asked to indicate how nice or mean the woman was and to predict what she would do next. Preschool children were more influenced than older children by the character’s looks and less influenced by her kind or cruel behavior. As the age of the child increased, the character’s looks became less relevant and her behavior carried increasing weight. These studies help explain why many children are frightened by characters like E.T., the extraterrestrial, who are intended to be kind, benevolent heroes but whose grotesque appearance makes them disturbing (Cantor, 1998).

Fantasy vs. Reality

A second developmental difference in what frightens children is that preschool children are just as likely to be frightened by a fantasy offering (depicting something that could not possibly occur in the real world) as by something that is realistic. This is not surprising since the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality develops only gradually during the first 8 years. Young children, in fact, are often more frightened by fantastic depictions than real ones because fantastic depictions are usually more visually grotesque. In contrast, by the age of 8 or 9, children are much more likely to be frightened by something that is realistic than by something fantastic. In Cantor and Sparks’s (1984) survey of what had frightened children, the parents’ tendency to name fantasy offerings decreased as the child’s age increased, while the tendency to identify realistic fictional offerings increased. Similarly, Cantor and Nathanson (1996) reported that children’s fear responses to fantasy depictions declined throughout the elementary school years, but their fear responses to the news increased. Because of young children’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, they often surprise their parents by worrying about preposterous outcomes after viewing children’s programs or movies. For example, after seeing Pinocchio, children often report worrying that their nose will grow if they lie, and after seeing The Wizard of Oz they often cannot sleep from fear that the Wicked Witch of the West or the flying monkeys will capture them (Cantor, 1998).

Abstract Concepts

A third generalization is that as children mature, they become frightened by media depictions involving increasingly abstract concepts. Data supporting this generalization come from a survey of children’s responses to the television movie The Day After, which depicted the devastation of a Kansas community by a nuclear attack (Cantor, Wilson, & Hoffner, 1986). The visual depictions of injury in the movie were quite mild compared to the enormity of the consequences implied by the plot. In a random telephone survey of parents conducted the night after the broadcast of this movie, children under 12 were reportedly much less disturbed by the film than were teenagers, and parents were the most disturbed. The very youngest children were the least frightened. The findings seem to be due to the fact that the emotional response comes from contemplating the potential annihilation of the earth as we know it—a concept that is beyond the grasp of the young child.

Studies of children’s reactions to major news events reveal that younger and older children tend to react to different components of media coverage, as a function of their level of abstraction. A survey evaluating children’s reactions to televised coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War (Cantor, Mares, & Oliver, 1993) reported that although children in the first, fourth, seventh, and eleventh grades had similarly intense emotional reactions, younger children were most affected by the visual aspects of the coverage and the direct, concrete consequences of combat (e.g., the missiles exploding), whereas older children responded more to the more abstract, conceptual aspects of the coverage (e.g., the possibility of the conflict spreading). The same trend has recently been observed in children’s responses to the war in Iraq (Smith & Moyer-Guse, in press).

Helping Children Cope with Their Media-Induced Fears

Even the most careful parents will not be able to completely shield their children from terrifying content in the media. Because of the frequent need of parents to help their children cope with their media-induced fears and anxieties, Cantor and associates (see Cantor, 1998, for review) have explored the types of strategies that are most effective for children of different ages. In general, nonverbal strategies, those that involve actions rather than words and ideas, work best for young children (up to the age of 7 or 8). Verbal strategies work best for older children and adults.

Nonverbal Strategies

The process of visual desensitization, or gradual exposure to threatening images in a nonthreatening context, is one nonverbal strategy that is effective for both preschool and older elementary school children (e.g., Wilson & Cantor, 1987). In several experiments, prior exposure to filmed footage of snakes, still photographs of worms, rubber replicas of spiders, and live lizards reduced children’s fear in response to movie scenes featuring similar creatures. In addition, fear of the Incredible Hulk was reduced by exposure to footage of the actor having his makeup applied so that he gradually took on the menacing appearance of the character (Cantor, Sparks, & Hoffner, 1988).

A nonverbal strategy that has been shown to have both more appeal and greater effectiveness for younger than for older children is covering one’s eyes during frightening scenes. In one experiment (Wilson, 1989), for example, when covering the eyes was suggested as an option, younger children used this strategy more often than older children. Moreover, the suggestion of this option reduced the fear of younger children, but actually increased the fear of older children. Wilson noted that the older children recognized the limited effectiveness of covering their eyes (while still being able to hear the program) and may have felt less in control, and therefore more vulnerable, when this strategy was suggested to them.

Other nonverbal strategies involve physical activities, such as clinging to an attachment object or having something to eat or drink. Younger children report using these strategies more often, and the children themselves think these physical techniques work better for younger than older children (Wilson, Hoffner, & Cantor, 1987).

Verbal Coping Strategies

In contrast to nonverbal strategies, verbal techniques provide information that casts the threat in a different light. These strategies involve relatively complex cognitive operations, and research consistently finds such strategies to be more effective for older than for younger children. When dealing with fantasy depictions, for example, the most typical cognitive strategy seems to be to provide an explanation focusing on the unreality of the situation. In one experiment (Cantor & Wilson, 1984), older elementary school children who were told to remember that what they were seeing in The Wizard of Oz was not real, showed less fear than their classmates who received no instructions. The same instructions did not help preschoolers, however, who, in addition to being unable to perform complex cognitive operations, do not have a full grasp of the implications of the fantasy-reality distinction.

For media depictions involving realistic threats, the most prevalent verbal strategy is to provide an explanation that minimizes the perceived severity of the depicted danger. This type of strategy is not only more reassuring for older than for younger children, in certain situations it enhances fear rather than reduces anxiety for younger children. In an experiment involving the snake-pit scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (Wilson & Cantor, 1987), prior reassuring information about snakes (e.g., stating that most snakes are not poisonous) reduced the fear of older elementary school children (approaching significance). However, kindergarten and first-grade children seem to have only partially understood the information, responding to the word “poisonous” more intensely than to the word “not.” For them, the supposedly reassuring information increased feelings of fear.

Research exploring ways to improve the effectiveness of verbal strategies for young children shows that asking children to repeat unequivocal but limited reassuring information is effective in reducing their fears. For example, young children who repeated the phrase “tarantulas cannot kill people” while viewing a movie involving a tarantula showed reduced fear levels (Wilson, 1987). Moreover, when children are frightened by something they have seen in the media, it is an especially good time to teach them safety guidelines and techniques to prevent similar events from happening to them (Cantor & Omdahl, 1999).

Expressive Communication as a Coping Strategy

Research on coping with emotional distress produced by situations other than media exposure suggests that certain ways of communicating about frightening media may also be useful. Cognitive therapy, one of the most widely studied psychological interventions for anxiety disorders, is based on the notion that individuals may gain control over their emotions by talking over disturbing situations with a caring listener. Cognitive therapies are effective in treating some anxiety disorders (Deacon & Abramowitz, 2004).

A good deal of research has been conducted on the therapeutic value of writing about one’s past frightening experiences. In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker (1997) provides evidence of the physical as well as the psychological benefits of writing about traumatic events. These benefits include fewer medical visits and improved immune function as well as reports of psychological well-being (Lepore & Smyth, 2002). Although young children are often unable to talk about their feelings and are not equipped to write about them, many art therapists have reported that children can reduce their anxieties by drawing pictures of what frightens them in conjunction with interaction with a therapist or caregiver (Horovitz, 1983; Roje, 1995).

In an effort to help young children and their parents cope with frightening images on television and in the movies, Cantor (2004b) recently published a children’s story. Teddy’s TV Troubles is an illustrated picture book about a little bear who has been frightened by something on TV. After recognizing that words do not work, he and his mother go through a series of calming activities that help him cope with his feelings. These include drawing a picture of what scared him and making it look less scary, repeating reassuring phrases to his favorite stuffed animal, and going to bed happy and secure. The book is intended to promote the type of parent-child interaction that helps young children cope with their fearful feelings.

Recent Approaches to Protecting Children from Harm

Because it is increasingly clear that children’s mental health is at stake if they have unlimited exposure to the media, a variety of approaches to protecting children have emerged. These approaches range from practices within individual homes and schools to activities involving federal agencies, Congress, state legislatures, and the courts. This section reviews some recent developments.

The first line of defense has been to foster greater parental involvement. Major public health organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics ( and Common Sense Media (, are dedicated specifically to educating the public about the harmful effects of the media and to lobbying the media industries to engage in more child-friendly practices. In addition, many books give guidance to parents on their children’s media exposure (e.g., Cantor, 1998; Steyer, 2002; Walsh, 1994). All of these sources urge parents to keep abreast of the content of media so that they can make wise choices for their children.

Rating Systems

Although the ideal situation might be for parents to preview every program or movie before their child sees it, this option is not possible with live television, and is impracticable for most other media. One potential solution to this problem has been the development of rating systems for media. Dale Kunkel and Lara Zwarun discuss this in detail in this volume. The media industries have introduced rating systems in efforts to ward off censorship or other government intervention (Bushman & Cantor, 2003). Media ratings in the United States are confusing, however, because every mass media delivery mode has a different rating system, with a distinct rating systems for movies (The Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA] Ratings), television (The TV Parental Guidelines), and music (Parental Advisories), and two different ratings systems for video games (The Electronic Software Rating Board [ESRB] Ratings, The Parental Advisory System). Some rating systems give age recommendations; others give information about content; some provide both age and content information; and some simply post an advisory. Although many parents report using the rating systems, many also find them confusing. Moreover, awareness of the television rating system has declined over the years and understanding of the meaning of the ratings is very low (Bushman & Cantor, 2003; Rideout, 2004). A 2004 study (Rideout, 2004) showed that while parents have more concerns about the effects of television than other media, they consider the television ratings less useful than other media ratings.

Because of many parents’ dissatisfaction with the existing media ratings, independently developed rating systems, such as the PSV Ratings ( to provide parents with more detailed information about media content.

In light of the difficulty that parents have found in mastering the various rating systems, several bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress to mandate the development of a universal rating system for all media. For example, The Twenty-First Century Media Responsibility Act of 2001 would have amended the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act to state that “it is the policy of Congress to provide for the establishment, use, and enforcement of a consistent and comprehensive system for labeling violent content in audio and visual media products, including the appropriateness of such products for minors.” The bill, like many others of its type, was never passed, in large part because the media industries have consistently lobbied against this type of legislation.

Blocking Technologies for Television

Blocking technologies like the V-chip have been developed as a way to give parents more control over their children’s TV exposure without needing to always be in the room where their children are watching television. The V-chip was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and was designed to allow programs to be blocked on the basis of their ratings. However, only 15% of parents have used the V-chip and many parents whose TVs are equipped with the device do not know it (Rideout, 2004). As currently configured, the V-chip is extremely difficult for parents to learn to use (Jordan & Woodard, 2003). Its effectiveness depends on the accuracy and appropriateness of programs’ ratings, which many critics argue are not fairly and consistently applied (e.g., Federman, 2002; Rideout, 2004). Although the V-chip was originally designed to work only with the TV Parental Guidelines and the MPAA Ratings, a recent Federal Communications Commission Report and Order (2004) mandates that the device become more flexible in the conversion to digital television, enabling it to work with modifications to the TV Parental Guidelines and with other rating systems.

Third-Party Editing and Filtering of Movies

Because many families are seeking a way to view films while avoiding scenes of intense violence, nudity, and profanity, several companies have emerged that sell or rent movies whose more controversial content has been edited or “sanitized.” Companies such as CleanFlicks ( offer such fare over the Internet and in stores. These companies are in a legal struggle with the Directors Guild of America and major movie studios over whether their practice violates copyright laws (Aho, 2004; Hilden, 2002).

Another method to sanitize recorded movies has been developed by a company called ClearPlay (, which creates specialized filters through which an unedited DVD can be played. The ClearPlay system allows the customer to choose to filter out varying levels of sex, violence, and profanity, and as a function of the customer’s choices, the device automatically mutes or skips images, dialogue, or scenes without altering the disk itself. This company was also challenged by the Directors Guild. However, ClearPlay maintains that it is different from the companies that edit and re-sell copyrighted properties, arguing that its customers are analogous to those who use their remote control to skip unwanted parts of a movie. Members of Congress weighed in on this controversy. In a hearing on the issue (Derivative Rights, Moral Rights, and Movie Filtering Technology, 2004), the rights and needs of families to protect their children from media violence were discussed in relation to the copyright and First Amendment rights of movie makers. Following that hearing, a bill was introduced into Congress that would exempt from copyright infringement the use of technologies that skip or mute limited portions of movies in the course of private home viewing (Family Movie Act of 2004). Language from this bill was later introduced into The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, which was passed by Congress and became law in April of 2005.

Discouraging the Marketing of Media Violence to Children

At the request of President Clinton and Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in September of 2000 issued a report on the marketing of violent entertainment products to children. This report concluded that the media industries were conducting “aggressive and persistent marketing of violent movies, music, and electronic games to children” in a manner inconsistent with the industries’ own ratings of the products (FTC, 2000, p. i). They further reported that advertisements for violent media products often failed to contain rating information and that it was relatively easy for teenagers to gain access to R-rated movies, parental advisory-labeled music, and M-rated videogames in the absence of parental accompaniment. The Commission urged improvements on all these fronts, but limited its recommendations to industry self-regulation. Since the 2000 report, the FTC has issued four follow-up reports, the most recent occurring in July of 2004. Each report notes progress in certain domains and points out areas where improvement is still needed. The FTC has created mechanisms for consumer complaints about media violence, and called for continuing follow-up reports on the industries’ marketing practices.

Restricting Children’s Access to Violent Video Games

In the wake of several highly publicized school shootings by students who were heavy users of video games, there have been several attempts to pass legislation restricting children’s access to such games. In a recent attempt, a bill introduced into Congress (Protect Children From Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003) sought to prohibit the sale to minors of adult-rated video games that contain content deemed harmful to minors, including graphic violence, sexual violence, or strong sexual content. This bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, but did not receive further action. In July of 2005, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that she would introduce another bill restricting children’s access to violent video games by implementing financial penalties for retailers who fail to enforce the games’ rating system (Clinton, 2005).

Several localities have passed ordinances restricting the access of minors to adult-rated violent video games. The city of Indianapolis enacted an ordinance in 2000 that would require video arcade operators to label video games that contain graphic violence or strong sexual content and to prohibit minors from playing them without their parents’ consent (“Peterson Signs Violent Video Game Ordinance,” 2000). A more narrowly tailored ordinance was passed in Washington State in 2003, which prohibited the sale or rental to a minor of video games depicting violence against law enforcement officers (Prohibiting Sale of Violent Computer and Video Games to Minors, 2003). Both laws were challenged by the video game industry and both were declared unconstitutional by the courts (Carnell, 2002; “Judge Strikes Down Washington Video Game Law,” 2004). Similar ordinances are being discussed in a variety of locales, including Illinois and New York City (see Citizens for Responsible Media,, for an overview of past and pending legislation). It remains to be seen whether any of these will survive court challenges.

Other Approaches Involving Governmental Bodies

Occasionally, the courts become involved in the issue of media violence on a more individual level. For example, one increasingly common area of dispute in divorce and joint custody cases relates to situations in which one parent wishes to control his or her children’s access to media violence and the other does not. Another example is the desire of some professionals who work with juveniles involved with violent crimes to restrict their access to violent media. The Center for Successful Parenting ( has led a campaign to educate family court judges on the issue of media violence. They have developed model child custody orders and model child probation orders that provide guidance for outlining restrictions to children’s access to violent media in such situations.

At the urging of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent out a Notice of Inquiry in the summer of 2004 on the presentation of violence on television and its impact on children, soliciting comments from researchers, media producers, and the general public on this issue. The FCC sought information about current trends in the amount and type of violence on television and its effects on children. They also asked for data regarding the use and effectiveness of the TV Parental Guidelines and the V-chip, and sought opinions regarding whether further public policy measures to help protect children were appropriate, and whether constitutional barriers exist to the enactment of such measures.


Proposed solutions and heated debates will continue as the media remain a dominant force in children’s lives, and as controversial content becomes even more accessible to children. Our society continues to grapple with the problem of balancing the government’s interest in protecting children’s welfare and parents’ interest in protecting their children, on one hand, with artists’ rights to free expression and the entertainment industries’ desires to maximize their profits, on the other. No matter how specific policy issues are resolved, children’s mental health will benefit if parents and other caregivers are well informed about the content and effects of the media that children consume and about effective ways of reducing the unhealthy effects.