Article Title: The Skeptic: Canadian psychologist Jonathan Freedman is the leading skeptic about the effects of violent entertainment. And a lot of his colleagues aren't impressed
Article Body: Written by: Bruce Rolston

Published: December 20, 2000

He's a learned academic, an expert on the psychological effects of violent entertainment. He played a significant role in the drafting of the recent Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of violent media.. He's lined up with dozens of other colleagues before Congress and the Canadian government to testify on the issue. There's one thing that makes him different, though: he says all the others are wrong.

Right now Professor Jonathan Freedman is arguably the leading academic voice in North America, arguing there's no proven connection between violent entertainment and violent behaviour: that the games you play and the TV you watch will not, in fact make you or your friends into sociopaths. Call him the "anti-Grossman." You call yourself a gamer, and you haven't heard of Freedman yet? You probably should.

Earlier this week, Freedman, who teaches at the University of Toronto, Canada's largest university, announced the results of his comprehensive review of all the English-language studies ever conducted into the effects of violent media. His conclusion: violent movies and television programs do not create violent viewers. "The scientific evidence simply does not show that watching violence either produces violence in people or desensitizes them to it."

Freedman has found that fewer than half of the approximately 200 studies that have been done provide any evidence that violent shows evoked aggression in viewers, and when the studies found a correlation it was extremely weak. He's frustrated that the conventional wisdom says the opposite -- that violent media breed aggression -- and feels many public interest groups are reinforcing this perception with distorted presentations of the scientific data. "I don't know why they're doing this. I guess they believe it," he told Adrenaline Vault, in an interview in Toronto last week.

The groups he's referring to include many of the major health and psychological organizations in America, many of which actually issued a joint statement earlier last July saying the debate over links between violent entertainment and violent behaviour was effectively over. The leaders of the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry all lined up at a press conference held by Kansas senator Sam Brownback to say they believed violent TV, music, video games and movies led to increased aggression in children. "Prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life," they said, citing the cumulative results of "3,500 studies".

That's ludicrous, says Freedman today. The fact the collected academics didn't even know how many studies there had been (only 200, he knows for a fact) should give the lay reader an idea how much serious research probably went into that joint statement. "They issued statements which were obviously at fault. They had the numbers of studies hilariously, wildly incorrect, which indicates by just a small leap of imagination that they don't know how many studies there are and therefore they haven't read them. Because if you had read them, you'd know there aren't 3,500 studies."

Freedman is part of a small but vocal minority in the psychological community (others include Temple University's Lawrence Steinberg, and Calstate's Stuart Fischoff) who have said these kinds of statements are more political than scientific. They've been attacked in turn by AMA spokesman Edward Hill and others, and compared to those scientists who once denied tobacco could kill people. "This is another example of that type of rhetoric. [Freedman and others] are condemning the quality of science behind this link," Hill told media earlier this year. But he also conceded that neither he nor anyone on the AMA's board had read all the research in question before stating their opinion.

The AMA isn't the only one making the "tobacco scientist" comparison. Time Magazine has said, "As for media violence, the debate there is fast approaching the same point that discussions about the health impact of tobacco reached some time ago: it's over." And in their testimony this year before the Senate's commerce committee hearings into violent entertainment, well-known computer game critics David Grossman, Rowell Huesmann and Craig Anderson all argued that there is just as much evidence for media causing violent behaviour as there is for smoking causing lung cancer . Some might even suggest Freedman's own research is impeachable, solely because some of his funding comes from the Motion Picture Association, an entertainment industry lobby group.

But Freedman, who has called comparing him and others to scientists in the pay of Big Tobacco "insulting," insists that if those studies had showed what people so wanted them to show, he'd be right up there criticizing the entertainment industries, too... but they just don't.

"If the research had been quite consistent in showing the facts, I would be convinced. It's good research, some of it's excellent research -- some of it isn't -- but overall it's a substantial body of research and if it had shown consistent effects, there [would be] ample research there to convince people."

Freedman and the established wisdom clashed again earlier this fall, during the FTC's hearings into the marketing of violent entertainment. Of course, marketing violent games and movies to minors is only a problem if you can demonstrate that it's harmful, so the FTC spent some time studying that question. Their final report concluded that the evidence only showed a high correlation of the watching of violent media and violent behaviour, but not necessarily causation: in other words, that violent children may tend to watch violent media, but that doesn't mean one causes the other.

If that conclusion doesn't sound quite as definitive as the lobby groups were insisting earlier, it likely has a lot to do with Freedman's own long discussions with the report drafters. He actually sees that report, which cites him often, as something of a victory for his side.

"I thought the FTC report, while I wouldn't agree with it, was the most moderate I have ever seen on this topic, and I take some credit for that, cause I did spend some time with them. Rather than saying, as other groups have, 'Well, the evidence is clear, television and media violence causes aggression,' they said 'Well, the causal connections are unclear, it's not absolutely certain, but we should do something about it.' So I liked the report, to the extent that it was better than previous reports, I suppose, as an accurate reflection of the reality."

So what's really going on in the studies that did show some increase in aggressive behavour? Why do children seem more aggressive after playing a violent game? The explanation is likely two-fold Freedman says -- part arousal, part imitation. "If there is a link, it may very well be due to the fact that violent media is more arousing and exciting. And so if you get [an effect, it] could well be that the children are more excited and therefore more active and therefore more likely to engage in active games -- some of which will be, or look like, they're aggressive."

Imitation explains the other half, he says. "The other point that I have tried to make, and I think it's certainly true, is that kids do imitate what they see. And so kids that have watched martial arts movies are very likely to engage in martial arts, rather than guns. The issue there is whether it's play or real. And there's no evidence that it affects real aggression. But it's almost certainly true that it affects the style of their play, so they'll go out and do martial arts."

Even if some experiments could show some connection, there's still the stark fact of the plunging murder rate. Opponents of media violence are hard-put to explain why, if the media is more violent today, why crime statistics (particularly the homicide rate) have been sharply dropping since the early 1990s, he says.

"I don't think there's any question that the rate of violent crime in the United States and Canada, went up steeply starting in 1965, rose sharply to the end of the 70s, levelled off, and dropped off a cliff starting around 1992, back to where it was in the 60s. The drop is even more dramatic than the increase, but they're both certainly there."

It's hard to argue with the homicide rate, he says. "People can criticize FBI statistics and all, but I think homicide is pretty good as a measure. All sorts of other things don't get reported, or get underreported or get overreported, but when there's a body, there's a body. And virtually all of them are reported.

"There's no evidence that television is less violent, there's no evidence that movies are less violent and we add to that these violent computer games and what's happened since then? The crime rate's dropped. What would it have been if it hadn't been for video games, down to zero? It's ridiculous. The fact of the matter is, you have this whole industry that's added on to the existing industry, and it's huge, and affects most kids, that is they play the games of some sort, and yet you have this tremendous drop."

And even if you could somehow still connect the increase in the 70s and 80s to the consumption of violent entertainment, how would that even begin to explain the identical rise and plunge in homicide rates between 1900 and 1935, in a time before modern media, he wonders?

"One of the reasons that people think television was harmful was because this increase [in homicide] followed, by some number of years, the introduction of television. And people got very excited about that. They thought, 'Well, this is tremendous change, and the other change in society is television, so that's probably what caused it.' But it turns out in the United States this pattern of a very sharp increase and levelling off and then dropping sharply also occurred between 1900 and 1935. Almost exactly the same pattern... In just one century you've got this pattern repeated twice, and certainly the first pattern wasn't due to television."

No, he says, everything points to violent crime rates being determined by some larger societal change, with medial violence having little if any effect.

"Even what I call the true believers think that television violence and media violence explains at most 10 per cent of aggression and crime. And that's based on the highest correlations that they ever find. Even if you believe everything and don't question anything a better guess is two or three per cent. So that at the very most it would not explain any of this."

But Freedman adds that same principle also likely rules out a favourite theory in the game industry: that violent computer games may actually be cathartic, allowing people to work out their violence on inanimate pixels instead of people. (Some have even theorized that plunging crime rate in the 90s is due to the catharsis of video games, not despite them.) As a psychology professor, Freedman doesn't buy that, either. "There's no good evidence for that, but it doesn't mean it isn't true. I mean, it's also very hard to demonstrate.

"My guess," he says, "is that both sides are right. That some individuals, under some circumstances, at a given moment in their lives, are on the verge of committing a violent act. And some of those people are pushed over the edge, perhaps, by violent television, either because it's so arousing, or because it seems so appealing, or whatever the reasons. And some of them are prevented from going over the edge, cathartically, by it.

"I believe that, because I do think television and media are powerful, and it seems hard to believe that they don't have some effect in this area. And yet there's no overall effect. So it makes it likely that it has both effects, depending on the individual. And still [only] a very small percentage of the people have any effect at all. Most of the people just look at it and there's no effect."

So, if it's not the media, what is the real reason for these huge swings in the crime rate? Great social change isn't usually caused by a single factor, he insists. "My guess is that given that this is a huge social change, it's probably caused by huge social change. And the huge social changes that started to occur around that time or earlier are things that plausibly should affect crime rates. You have a tremendous increase in the divorce rate, and therefore many more children being brought up by single, mostly mothers, mostly poor. You have a tremendous increase in unwanted births to very young women -- well, girls -- who are ill-prepared to be parents, who don't want to be parents, don't have the resources to be parents. And even in intact families, a huge increase in the number of women working outside the home, without a corresponding increase in the availability of good daycare. And so on."

Proving any of this is hard, he cautions. "But you can plausibly make an argument that you had a breakdown in the family. You have more children who are at risk, you have more children who come home to empty houses, you have more children living in poverty. And all of that makes for an unpleasant and difficult life for a young child, which might lead to aggression and might eventually lead to crime."

Consistent with his belief that the family unit holds the answers to these questions, Freedman is a supporter of voluntary industry ratings for violent entertainment. What he doesn't support is government blustering: his case in point is television's V-Chip, which he also was a leading critic of at the time. Legislators passed laws in the United States and Canada mandating all new televisions have the chip, which allows parents to block objectional programs. But recent research shows at most 2 per cent of households actually use it, despite all the laws and publicity. (At the Senate commerce committee hearings on violent entertainment this fall, several senators expressed frustration with the parents of America for not accepting their helpful assistance.)

"I went to the hearings on the V-Chip," he says now of his role in that debate. "I was a small voice in the storm."

"I said, first of all, there's no evidence that this is harmful, which they [lawmakers] brushed aside. And second, you know, there's no way it's going to change anything. Even if it's used, which it won't be, I guarantee that you are not going to see a change, because of this, in aggression or crime rates and everything like that. But they passed it."

Freedman has sat in on a lot of these kinds of legislative attempts to save North American youth from itself. Even when he's not at the microphone himself, he enjoys being a spectator, watching what he sees as the various entertainment industries' very different approaches to the problem of justifying what they do. Some are defiant, some are defensive, and some are just in denial, he says.

The one person who has impressed him the most recently, he says, was Danny Goldberg of Artemis Records, who at this fall's commerce committee hearings stridently threw the gauntlet right back at the senators who were attacking his industry for Eminem and other crimes.

"The music industry said, 'Go to Hell!'" When one senator asked [Goldberg], "Will you agree right now that you will not publish this," recalls Freedman, "He said 'I will not!' Terrific! I thought that was great."

According to Freedman, the music industry was absolutely right to wrap itself in the Bill of Rights, by comparing sung words to written ones. "I mean, some of the music stuff is extremely offensive. Eminem is the example they used: disgusting and obnoxious out of context, and probably even in context it's pretty obnoxious. But they [Goldberg, et al] said, 'No. You don't have anything to say to us. We're not going to listen to you. We'll do what we do and publish what we publish. We're like books. We are the equivalent of books.'"

The television executives he's heard, on the other hand "have been extremely defensive. They've been saying, 'Oh, well, nothing we do is harmful, and we're very careful, and we do this and that and we have ratings, and so on. And the movie industry to some extent also, although they're much tougher than the networks. With good reason: the networks are the most vulnerable, because they have licenses. No one else has a license. I understand that they're more vulnerable, and more sensitive to this. But huge differences there. Fascinating, actually."

What about computer games, though? Freedman admits from the start he and other researchers are on shakier ground here, largely because most of the academic research that has been done concerned movies or television. Good studies on computer game violence are still extremely rare, he says.

"It's not a big issue for psychologists. It has little theoretical interest. It's hard to get money to fund it, because if you believe in it, you claim that the research is so overwhelming there's no reason to do any more. And if you don't believe in it, you can't get funded because all the agencies believe in it."

Still, pro-game lobbyists rarely mention that same lack of research... something he believes is a mistake. The game industry advocates he's sometimes shared panels with are just not arguing the case for games very well, he believes. Some, he says, "are sort of taking the position that, 'Well, it may be true of television but it's not true of video games.' Television may be harmful but video games aren't."

Talking with a leading industry lobbyist last year, he recalls, "I said, 'Boy, you are living in a dream world if you think people are going to buy that.'"

"I mean, purely intuitively, if watching violent programs are bad, doing them is worse. I'm not saying that's true, but they're going to [try to] convince someone that television violence is harmful because people watch it passively, but when you actually go out and shoot other people [in a game], that's not harmful? It's ridiculous. It may be true, but it's ridiculous to think anyone's going to buy that argument.

"And I said, 'I think this is a 'You all hang together or you hang separately' situation. If you start accepting the results on television violence, they're going to crucify the video game industry. Because if you've accepted that television violence is harmful and therefore have hurt the case for television and movie people, Congress is going to say, 'How can you possibly suggest that these really revolting things where people are shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting aren't worse, if anything?'"

The industry should also concede one of Grossman's favourite arguments, that shooting pixels can make you a more efficient shot, he says. Unfortunately for game supporters, from a psychological standpoint that makes too much sense to be easily denied. "The lobbyists says, 'Because a kid plays a driving game, Need for Speed, that doesn't mean he should be given a license.' I say, 'Well, that's true, but I would not be at all surprised if he's better at driving because of it, that when he gets to the age where he can learn to drive he was better at it.'

"There's no reason in the world why they shouldn't get better at shooting guns: better at it than if they haven't shot a [game] gun… even though aiming is different and everything. Particularly if you go into a video arcade: it's a gun you hold, and you aim it. Gun clubs teach you to shoot more accurately, presumably. Why shouldn't this? So I think that's a silly argument. Grossman's right: of course they get better at shooting."

Not that Freedman generally has any time for Grossman, the most vocal critic of computer games. Although the two have never actually met, he feels he has the measure of the best-known voice on the "other side." "He's just a popularist. He doesn't know anything. He's just someone who came to this late and doesn't really have the training or the knowledge to understand it. But I assume he's sincere about it."

What the game industry has to argue instead, he says, if they want to hold the Grossmans of the world off from regulating them into the ground, is that there's nothing wrong with teaching shooting, as opposed to killing. "If you want to defend yourself, what you say is, 'There's nothing wrong with them being better at shooting. It's legal to shoot, as it's legal to drive. But there's nothing in this that teaches them to kill, or teaches them to in fact use their skill to be aggressive or to be violent."

Instead, game company execs get pretty defensive when they're asked to explain what they do, he says. "I think that they suspect what they're doing may be harmful. They're ambivalent about it. So they have real difficulty coming right out and saying 'It's not harmful.' They're not so sure. They don't read the research.

"Probably, many of the interactive computer game executives don't like the violent games. They prefer the other kind of games. And they're a little nervous about that."

What if he were in their shoes? "I'd do what the music industry did. I'd say, 'There is no evidence that any of this is harmful. We think we're making kids who are computer-intelligent, computer-savvy and are very good at what they do and some of them will turn out to be computer experts and some of them will just use it in their other work and some of them won't use it at all.'

"I would concede it's not good for everyone. And those who find it upsetting shouldn't do it. It's conceivable that it's even bad for some. And obviously parents should play a role and should look and see what their kids are doing. These games are expensive: 12 year-olds probably can't go out and buy them themselves. So if you think it's going to be harmful to your particular child, don't get it. But for other children, it might be helpful, even if it gets rid of some of their excess energy, so they're not bouncing off the walls as much. Parents should always play a role and if the parents can play along with the kids or take an interest in it, that's good too.

"You can say, 'Well, we agree these games that have some sexual overtones aren't appropriate for younger kids. Very aggressive games, we label them: we say 'Mature,' but there shouldn't be a law against a younger kid watching it. We know that younger kids play these games, just like older kids do. We don't see any harm in that so long as it doesn't upset the kid and the parents don't mind it. That's what I would say.

"But I think it's a big mistake to be defensive about it. If you really believe what you're doing is worthwhile, say it."

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