Video games, parental rights and double standards


Reactions to the Supreme Court ruling that struck down a California law regulating the sale of violent games to minors strike me as interesting, to say the least. Regardless of where one stands on this particular ruling, it is interesting to note how often legislators and the courts step in to take over the role as parent.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was quoted as saying, “The government isn’t always able to step in and take over the role as parent,” in defending the Supreme Court ruling regarding these violent games. The Deseret News article further quoted Shurtleff as follows:

“Nobody likes the fact that there are violent video games out there, and no one likes their kids watching them,” Shurtleff said, adding parents and the gaming industry need to take responsibility for keeping violent games away from minors, just as with movies and music. “Parents, that’s the key. That’s what is going to control what movies they see and what music they listen to. Video games are no different,” Shurtleff told the Deseret News. He said he believes that the government shouldn’t step in and substitute for parenting.

“Parents need to wake up and be aware,” he said.

I agree wholeheartedly with Shurtleff’s first comment and would add that the government shouldn’t step in and take over the parent’s role. But why is it OK for the government to do it in some instances and then not do it in other instances?

Consider the following examples:

1. Why pass car seat regulations that require booster seats for children up to age 8? It often becomes a logistical nightmare for mothers and fathers when trying to create carpools for school and other activities involving children. Even in my Honda Odyssey, I can’t get three boosters to fit in a row. That means that after I put my four children who are under the age of 8 in the car, I can only have one other child under the age of 8 in the vehicle and must leave two seat belts unused.

2. Why ban the sale or manufacture of drop-side cribs instead of letting parents decide what they want to use? I have often been grateful for our drop-side crib. I have big babies, and when recovering from a delivery my back is often in a weakened state. On numerous occasions, I literally would have been unable to lift my baby out of the crib without the ability to drop the side down. Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to require warning labels on the cribs to remind parents to check parts that may loosen and to mandate high-quality parts from the manufacturers?

3. Why make it illegal to sell alcohol or tobacco to minors? Shouldn’t the alcohol and tobacco industries have to take responsibility along with parents? I don’t see how these extremely violent video games are any less toxic or destructive than the abuse of alcohol and tobacco.

4. Why prohibit parents from leaving a child in a car unattended? Again, it’s a logistical nightmare to lug all my children, including baby and toddlers, into a school to take my visually impaired child into her classroom. It takes longer to unbuckle them and buckle them back up in their car seats than it does to walk my daughter into her classroom. Can you imagine the crowd in the hall if all parents had to do the same? Or is it really so bad to leave my children in the shaded car for the two to three minutes it takes for me to run into a pizza shop to buy a pizza for dinner?

Now, I understand these laws are in place because of the physical harm that can and has come to children otherwise. But why is there a double standard when it comes to the potential for mental and emotional harm? Violent video games are one example of this. The gaming industry clearly has an incentive to get children hooked and addicted as early as possible – more money and power over the hearts and minds of our children.

As parents, we absolutely do have a responsibility to monitor our children, “to wake up and be aware” and do all we can to protect them within reason. What I don’t understand is why public officials feel they should intervene when a child’s physical safety is at stake but not when a child’s mental and emotional safety is at stake.

From what I understand of the California law in question, it would have supported parental rights by preventing minors from purchasing these violent video games without their parents’ knowledge. Parents could then decide if they wanted their children to have them or not. Unlike what Shurtleff views as government stepping in to take the place of parents, is it not more accurate to see it as the government stepping in to allow the parents to take their place as parents? These are the kind of laws that do make sense.

Government should find ways to empower parents, such as regulating how other adults interact with children (e.g., sale of video games, alcohol, tobacco) in order to preserve parental rights but not regulate how parents can act with their children (e.g., cribs, booster seats, leaving children in a car) unless the potential for harm is so great and so recurrent that it makes sense.

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  • Jesse Dominic Harris

    You’re starting off with the dubious assumption that the consumer of the content will always accept and emulate what they see. There has yet to be any serious study to create such a correlation, and most of the people who do act these things out were already sociopaths to begin with. Why, then, should we act on this false premise? Just because you “don’t see how these extremely violent video games are any less toxic… than the abuse of alcohol and tobacco” doesn’t mean that you can safely assume that they are.

    There’s also the gross impracticality of enforcing such laws. Video games (and, for that matter, most media) are shifting to being distributed digitally. Do you honestly believe that you can somehow force these standards to be applied to a distributor that exists solely online, likely with operations in a different state or time zone? The very idea is absurd and divorced from reality.

    Then we come to the matter of defining the “community” part of “community standards”. By definition, a community has to have some kind of focused commonality, or it does not exist. It is impractical to try to define an entire state as a community, and just as difficult to do so with a moderately sized city. The diversity of opinions and backgrounds all but ensures conflict that drives a “community” apart rather than unite them in purpose.

    You also cite exactly zero data as to the consumption of these video games, a classic fear-mongering tactic. Is the percentage of minors affected relatively large or relatively small? What part of these games’ audience is minors? Is that the intended audience? Resorting to such low-information arguments only muddies the waters and provides no logical basis on which to build your conclusions.

    In short, you’re tilting at windmills in a way that should be downright embarrassing to an organization that otherwise does good work. You should be ashamed.

    • Anonymous

      A little harsh, don’t you think?

      You raise a lot of interesting questions, but, as you probably know, blog posts tend to be brief and cannot address every question or criticism that may arise.

      As you noted, enforcement with online/digital gaming can be difficult, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it is impossible or shouldn’t be done. Sometimes we even have laws that are unenforceable simply to communicate a standard of what is right and wrong.

      Regarding data, here’s a short review of the research (meta-analysis of 380 studies) from a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas on the link between violent video games and aggression :

      I think the most important point of this post is that Shurtleff argues that CA was taking over the role of the parent with this law when it actually empowers the parent by requiring retailers to go through them. Paul makes a good argument about this

      In contrast, these laws regarding cribs, car seats, etc. diminish parental rights. 

      • Jesse Dominic Harris

        Harsh, but fair. No data is cited, and opinions are presented as facts. That same kind of mentality is what drives the anti-HB116 crowd, a group that I believe we would agree prefers low-information anecdote to any kind of hard facts.

        An unenforceable law only serves a purpose when it allows you to get your day in court. State bills on immigration, the TSA, and federal land policy accomplish this when no other recourse is left. In this case, the unenforceable law might send a message, but we have to ask if it is a message worth sending. If the problem is not widespread (again, get some hard data), the cost of action far outweighs the cost of inaction.

        The report you cite is tenuous evidence at best. The author of the article admits that more research needs to be done, and no data is cited regarding the effects on minors at all. It’s also not specific as to how the increased aggression manifested itself. Did it mean greater competitiveness, or an increased inclination towards violence? The former is good, the latter is bad, but the article makes no distinction. It’s no wonder he called for more studies.

        I’m not arguing whether or not such laws are consistent with the Constitution (I believe they are so long as they are sufficiently limited in geographic scope), but I am arguing that this entire post was based on a set of assumptions with too little data. When decisions are made before facts are in, they tend to be little more than shots in the dark, and that often ends very, very badly.

        • Matthew Piccolo

          Thanks for your reply, Jesse.

          Again, you raise some legitimate questions that are certainly worth discussing, but I think the assertion that government should be involved in regulating access to video games for children is the minor point of the post. The main point is the double standard she mentions and what effect different regulations have on parental rights. If the main point of her short post had been to argue that video games lead to increased violence and should be regulated, then perhaps the author would have looked into supplying empirical data to support her claim. 

  • Mary Kay Ware

    Thank you, Jesse for the points you make–they are well taken.  My main point was regarding the double standard that exists in government policy and that government needs to strengthen parental rights instead of trying to be a replacement for parents.  I was not trying to prove the negative effects of violent video games, other than stating my belief that they do exist and use this example to help illustrate the double standard.  Your criticisms are appreciated and help me improve my writing and reasoning.

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