Obama Tasks CDC With Study Of Video Games And 'Violent Media'

from the not-the-worst-idea-I've-ever-heard,-but-certainly-not-the-best-either dept

In the middle of a much larger speech introducing his "Gun Violence Reduction Executive Actions," Obama threw in a little something for the videogame crowd:
Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.
While it may seem like a shot across the bow of videogames to score some cheap political points, what Obama actually has in mind is a bit more subtle. (Make no mistake, though: this subject wouldn't have been broached if not for the Newtown shooting.)
Conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images, and violence: The President is issuing a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and scientific agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. It is based on legal analysis that concludes such research is not prohibited by any appropriations language. The CDC will start immediately by assessing existing strategies for preventing gun violence and identifying the most pressing research questions, with the greatest potential public health impact. And the Administration is calling on Congress to provide $10 million for the CDC to conduct further research, including investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence.
Two things worth noting in this paragraph:

The "Presidential Memorandum" lifts a moratorium on this sort of research by the CDC, something that has been in place for over 15 years. Kyle Orland at Ars Technica explains:
[T]he federal Centers for Disease Control have been prohibited from funding studies that "advocate or promote gun control" since 1996, when Congress cut the $2.6 million the organization had been using to fund gun injury research through its Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Further moves since then have prevented the CDC from even receiving federal crime data for gun research, and prohibited the National Institute of Health from doing gun violence research as well.
And why was this research prohibited? Depending on who you ask, it's either because the NRA didn't like guns being tied to injuries and death (Orland calls it a "chilling effect" brought on by Arthur Kellerman's study) or the study itself was severely flawed and skewed to fit the pre-existing bias of the director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which operated under the CDC's direction.

Secondly, the wording directs the CDC to focus on areas with the "greatest potential public health impact." The administration may namecheck current hot buttons like videogames and violent media, but as it's worded, the CDC has no instruction to start its work by assessing these areas. As Orland states, this one sentence is likely nothing more than a brief concession to the current political climate:
Making a brief mention of video game studies as a part of a $10 million funding request is a good way to pay lip service to these political concerns on both the left and the right without really making it a priority. If studying video game and media violence were actually a major focus of the president's gun control agenda, it would have a much more prominent place in both his remarks and his official funding requests. Instead, the real money the president is asking from Congress will go to more important things: $20 million for the National Violent Death Reporting System, $14 million for police and security training, $150 million for in-school mental health counselors, $30 million to develop school emergency management plans, and so on.
Overall, putting the CDC in charge is probably (in the parlance of government works) the "least worst" way to handle this. The CDC will have access to more mental health-related data than other existing entities, a factor that definitely needs to be considered. (But this factor also presents its own problems: it's entirely too easy to write off mass murderers as mentally defective. The idea of taking someone's life, much less multiple lives, is so repulsive to "normal" human beings that the kneejerk reaction is to blame it on mental illness. It's safe to say that normal people would never commit mass murder, but it's way too simplistic to assume that every perpetrator is mentally defective.) It should also have access to demographic and other environmental factors, which should give it a more rounded picture than the limited sample sizes and variables of smaller studies and surveys.

Another factor that makes the CDC a preferable choice is the fact that it's an existing agency. Turning this task over to a special committee would result in a room filled to capacity with appointees and their predispositions. (The argument can also be made that the CDC carries its own predispositions, but expecting a government directive, especially an executive order, to conjure up a completely impartial study is to show a level of faith the government simply doesn't deserve.)

Now, the downside.

Any conclusions the CDC comes to will be immediately suspect. No matter what it finds, the conclusions will be disputed. The presence or absence of a link between violent media and gun violence will only exacerbate the divide between both sides of the debate. To date, no link has been conclusively proven. This study's outcome will likely be more of the same. It's nearly impossible isolate people and "violent media" from the other factors that affect the equation. The CDC should be able to incorporate its existing knowledge in regards to risk factors, but the answers it comes up with will fail to satisfy everyone. Ultimately, it will change nothing, but it will have the power to inform government policy going forward and, depending on the political climate, it's likely that gossamer-thin correlation will be enough to justify legislation.

Then there's the tangled issue of gun control policy, something the CDC has waded into in the past. Again, any conclusions drawn will be contrasted against its history with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and its biased approach to the study of gun violence. (Particularly troublesome is a 1987 CDC report, in which the director of the NCIPC thought enough evidence existed to "confiscate all firearms from the general population" in order to prevent 8,600 homicides a year.) The administration has done a disservice to both groups (video game fans, gun owners) by making this study inseparable from a larger gun control proposal.

The best case scenario, like so much in government, is that nothing happens. The studies are proposed, the climate shifts and, like so much before it, it's discarded in favor of What's Ailing the Nation Now. While it would be interesting to see the CDC perform an in-depth study (especially if the data collected is made available to the public), the chance of a negative outcome (in terms of misguided legislation, etc.) is way too high.

On the whole, though, it is refreshing to see videogames treated as part of the media, rather than a wholly distinct scapegoat capable of destroying society on its own. Unfortunately, even with its rather brief appearance in the administration's set of proposals, it appears the government still wants to control media (as opposed to "the media") and this single paragraph could help rationalize unconstitutional measures.

Filed Under: cdc, media, obama, studies, video games, violence

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  1. icon
    nasch (profile), 22 Jan 2013 @ 7:33am

    Re: Really?

    I thought you might not be the same knee-jerk reactionary that we always have. It's been studied. It's been debunked. Studying it again is NOT going to make a difference.

    At least he's studying it more rather than pushing to pass a law despite the lack of evidence. It could be worse.

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