The hottest rage in my thirteen year old’s class last year was a first person shooter internet video game called Soldier Front. T’ween boys love these type of internet games because they can play with friends on-line; no need for playdates, the kids all meet in the virtual world and don guns together.
The goal of this game is to gun down soldiers in what easily passes for an abandoned building in Iraq. Points are given for missions accomplished and head shots (not photos of aspiring actors – bullets to the head which then explodes).
I hated this game and wanted it out of my house. With the newest software, I could block this site. But I don’t have the newest software on all my computers, I am not exactly sure how to use the parental controls properly, my eight year old could probably find his way around any filter, and – most significantly — there are many, many more games ready to fill in if this particular game is blocked. Soldier Front and others like it are not rated, so evaluating them without playing each and every one of them is impossible.
I weighed my options. I could get rid of the internet in the house (which would make it hard for me to work); I could create a filter that blocks out any content dealing with guns (including an important recent Supreme Court decision on the 2nd Amendment); I could move us to a remote part of Alaska and live off the land. None were good options. Attacking the media platform – in this case the computer and internet — rather than the content itself seemed misguided.
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan concluded that the content of electronic media, its “message,” is simply beside the point—that in electronic media, unlike print media, “the medium is the message.” In a recent volume of The Future of Children that I edited with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Children and Electronic Media, we came to a rather different conclusion. Content, it turns out, is critical to how media influence children. That is, the message is the message. Rather than focusing on the type of technology children use or even how much time children spend with media, parents, educators, and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms.
This turns out to be difficult. At the government level, First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible. At the community and school level, educators struggle to use media in positive ways while ensuring that technology is not used to cheat or bully. At the family level, it is often easier for parents to tell their children, “one hour of media, that’s it,” than to wade through the content of the myriad media offerings, rely on inconsistent and hard-to-understand rating systems, and compete with an industry that often cares more about commercial success than children’s quality of life. Moreover, with the increasing portability of technology, the reality is that kids are often using electronic media where no adult is present, let alone their parents.
The answer is not more gadgets – filters, V-Chips, parental controls. Rather, industry needs to step up to the plate and do a better job in offering positive media content. In our recent policy brief we examined ways that non-profits and government are using media to positively influence adolescent well-being. These are not the public service announcements of the 1970’s and 80’s (“this is your brain on drugs”) that preached and missed the point. Rather, these are exciting, interactive, “Web 2.0” media campaigns that invite youth to create the content and own the message. Certainly for-profit industry can follow suit. While I am fairly confident that the government cannot ban first-person shooter games, I am sure that industry can decide it is not worth their time to post such games. Advertisers can push this by paying for ads on positive websites. Finally, parents, government and advocates can band together to put pressure on industry to clean up its act.
As for Soldier Front, I resorted to old fashioned parenting and simply banned the game with serious consequences if that rule was broken. It worked this time — no batteries (or broadband) required – but it may not the next when my son is older and I am not standing over his shoulder watching everything he does. Here’s hoping industry has listened by then.