24 April, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I'd like to ask you a few questions.

  1. Do you believe that using condoms reduces the risk of catching HIV?
  2. Do you think that calcium increases bone strength?
  3. Is it true that spending time doing homework correlates with academic achievement?
  4. Is there strong evidence linking smoking to an increased risk of lung cancer?
If you are like most rational people, you will have answered yes to all those questions. OK. So here's another one.

  • Do you believe that watching violence on TV and playing violent video games leads to increases in aggression, violence, and educational and behavioural problems?

Chances are that you'd be a bit equivocal about this one, probably thinking that there isn't good evidence either way.

Well, you'd be wrong. The evidence for this link is almost as strong as the evidence for smoking causing lung cancer. It is twice as strong as the evidence linking passive smoking to lung cancer, twice as strong as the evidence that condoms protect against HIV, three times as strong as the evidence that calcium increases bone strength, and more than three times stronger than the evidence that links doing homework with academic achievement. What's more, the evidence that violence on TV and in video games is bad for us has been accumulating for almost fifty years and is now considered 'overwhelming' by researchers in the field.

So why don't we have legislation banning violent content? Why don't we restrict it's sale, or use, to adults? Why don't we have prominent health warnings on every violent TV show or video game? Why aren't people successfully suing the purveyors of this dangerous and antisocial material?

Partly, it is because there has been a campaign of disinformation and water-muddying by the TV networks and games manufacturers, just like the ones perpetrated by the cigarette manufacturers to confuse legislators and the public about the dangers of smoking, and by the big oil companies to ward off legislation on global warming, and by the churches to try to stop evolution being taught. After all, games and television are multi-billion dollar businesses and that means a lot of vested interest by the people who own the companies.

Partly it is because we (that means me and it means you) are unwilling to admit that we could be influenced by watching violence. Somehow, we feel, we are immune to these effects – whatever the evidence shows. It can't make us more aggressive or violent. It can't change our behaviour. We're made of sterner stuff than that! Our minds are our own.

But evidence is evidence. It may be impossible to prove in any individual case but the effect has been demonstrated and measured over and over again. It is time we opened our minds to the fact that this stuff is hurting us and hurting our children.

(The source for this piece was the print edition of New Scientist for 21st April 2007 – both the editorial and the article by Helen Phillips called 'Mind Altering Media'.)

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