‘As long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present forms there are no secure homes."
This overheated warning of the insidiousness of the comic book threat came from psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in 1954 during hearings on juvenile delinquency before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Wertham thought Superman comics were "particularly injurious to the ethical development of children."
As foolish as he sounds now, Wertham's crusade was a hit with lawmakers. He succeeded in getting the legislature in New York to pass a ban on certain comic books to minors. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Thomas Dewey on free speech grounds.
The First Amendment has stayed the hand of many a would-be censor. When this liberty isn't strongly enforced, however, terrible misjudgment reigns. Remember Anthony Comstock, America's most famous scold of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? He used his power as an U.S. postal inspector to prevent the mailing of information on birth control and venereal disease.
We look upon these moral dictators now as naive and quaint. But their kind still exists. Tipper Gore launched her crusade targeting heavy metal bands like Twisted Sister only 28 years ago. Her ilk then turned to rap music, as if song lyrics caused rather than reflected the violence and misogyny in urban homes and neighborhoods.
Today that same impulse has its attention focused on violent video games, particularly after news reports that the Newtown, Conn., shooter, Adam Lanza, obsessively played Call of Duty and Starcraft before killing 20 children and six educators. Almost immediately after the attacks a measure was introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, to tell the National Academy of Sciences to probe the impact of violent video games on children's well-being.
Think the West Virginia Democrat had that one in his back pocket?
I can save the NAS a lot of time. Lanza is a tragic case, but he's an outlier. There is no body of social scientific evidence demonstrating that violent video games are the cause of violent acts or turn a peaceful person into an aggressor in real life.
Just as watching Natural Born Killers, playing paintball (or whatever is today's modern equivalent to cops and robbers), listening to Eminem or reading Lord of the Flies doesn't cause harm or provoke violence, neither does using a controller to mow people down with a chainsaw. It may not be the most productive use of time, but children at a very young age know the difference between real and pretend. As Cheryl Olson, a public health researcher and co-author of Grand Theft Childhood wrote in the New York Times, violent video games "(in moderation) may actually have some positive effects on developing minds."
The research on the topic was well considered just two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court when the majority struck down a California law criminalizing sales of violent video games to minors as unconstitutional. The court looked at the competing psychological studies, including the work of Dr. Craig Anderson — the researcher that California chiefly relied upon. Anderson claims to have found that children exposed to these games have heightened feelings of aggression in the few minutes after playing. But he also acknowledged that about the same effects are produced when children are exposed to violence on television, including in Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons, or when they're shown a picture of a gun.
In the real world, as video games get more startlingly realistic and depraved, rates of violence by young men have gone down, not up. Arrests for violent crime for males between 10 and 24 years of age have plummeted from 850 arrests per 100,000 in 1995 to 516 per 100,000 in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have always been people in power who blamed juvenile delinquency and crime on exposure to certain media. They have always been both wrong and dangerous to our freedoms.