Days after the Parkland shooting this year, President Trump discussed media violence and its impact on children, suggesting that it might be time to take another look at media ratings:
“I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. You see these movies, they’re so violent And maybe they have to put a rating system for that.” A common thread running through many, if not most of the deadly school shootings that have happened over the last 20 years, is an affinity for violent video games on the part of the shooter.
The president can be excused for being apparently unaware that there are already media ratings systems in place, because since their inception and adoption, they have done little more than provide cover for the various sectors of the entertainment industry to crank out increasingly violent and sexualized content that is marketed to our children.
It’s certainly true that media impacts — and can even harm — children. Not only do academic studies prove that, but many parents set screen time limits precisely because media can shape their children’s thoughts.
To help discuss one aspect of media — violent video games — the White House held a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, video game industry representatives, and a few others, including me. I was there to represent the parents who struggle daily to carve out a little oasis of peace and innocence for their children against these multi-billion-dollar entertainment companies that are constantly working to undermine us by marketing their violence- and sex-saturated products to our children.
The video game representatives pulled out their same old talking points that have long been refuted, essentially refusing to upset the status quo. During the meeting, I was able to interject and say just how untrue their excuses are. As the mother of a 9-year-old boy, I’ve seen how the deck is stacked against parents in our culture in favor of the entertainment industry.
While I appreciate Mr. Trump’s willingness to confront media gun violence and its impact on our children, as far as I’m concerned, the conversation didn’t go far enough.
The problem is so much bigger than just video games. Our media culture is saturated with violence, courtesy of the entertainment industry.
Every night the broadcast networks stage a dress rehearsal for tragedy of this kind: Realistic displays of graphic, horrific violence, often with morally ambiguous protagonists — just because they can.
A Parents Television Council report released after the Parkland shooting found that 61 percent of primetime broadcast television shows contain violence, 39 percent contained violence and guns, and every program was rated as being suitable for a 14-year-old child, or even younger.
Movies are no better. A 2013 study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that gun violence tripled in PG-13-rated films, which means that more children are able to watch films with more violence.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings are supposed to help keep violent video games out of the hands of children, yet Parents Television Council (PTC) research has revealed how easy it is for an unaccompanied minor to purchase an adult-rated video game. The video game industry fought for the right of retailers — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — to sell violent video games to unaccompanied minors.
But these ratings essentially provide cover for the entertainment industry to show adult content. Consider that no show on broadcast television is rated TV-MA (mature audiences), although that rating is frequently used on cable TV, and on original content found on streaming services like Netflix. Broadcasters are reluctant to scare away advertisers by rating their shows for adult audiences, but PTC research has also found that the most violent shows on broadcast TV have essentially similar levels of violence as the most violent cable TV shows.
Even more proof of this cover is that TV networks rate their own shows, and are overseen by a governing body comprised of the same TV networks.
As Trump administration officials seek to find solutions to curbing school violence, I hope they will review and commit to changing the ratings systems to benefit parents, not the entertainment industry.
And it is long past time for the entertainment industry to stop hiding behind the ratings systems in order to market violent content to our children.
• Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council (www.ParentsTV.org).