When the Supreme Court shot down a California law banning children from purchasing violent video games, parents were handed another reason to step up.
The state wanted to keep those younger than 17 from buying or renting video games that give players the option of "killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being." But, by a 7-2 vote, justices tossed California's 6-year-old law last month, citing a lack of compelling evidence that violent video games are more damaging to children than other types of media -- regardless of their images, language or intensity. "Disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
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Studies have linked violent media images to aggression in children for decades. Video game research, while newer, has shown similar results, as affirmed by the U.S. Surgeon General and many professional health associations. Despite these findings and as harsh as it sounds, in the California case, free speech rightly trumped any possible harm to children. Attaching limits to speech is a slippery slope.
Still, the ruling squarely sets the responsibility on parents not only to determine what games are appropriate but also to help steer their children toward good choices themselves.
Many retailers offer an assist by voluntarily prohibiting underage purchases of games rated "M," the same way movie theaters won't let a 16-year-old see an R-rated film. Beyond that, parents of young gamers can meet this challenge in a number of ways.
• Pay attention to ratings on game boxes. What the Entertainment Software Rating Board says matters -- not just the letter symbol on the front, but the descriptions on the back that more specifically explain the content. Visit esrb.org to understand the ratings.
• Read reviews from trusted Internet sites. Set a good example with the game choices you make.
• Summer means more free time for many young teens, and it's nearly impossible to monitor their every move. But parents can learn what games their children's friends have at their houses by talking to those friends' parents.
• Understanding what children are viewing is perhaps most important, as it sets up a chance for conversation. If a game is questionable, parents can watch kids play it -- or play it with them -- and point out differences between fact and fiction. If a child wants to join the Army, for instance, the decision shouldn't be based on hours spent with a game glamorizing war.
The court has chosen to safeguard an important freedom rather than shield children from possible adverse effects of violent games. It's not the state's job to determine the limits parents should set on their children's activities. But recognizing that does emphasize the attention and commitment inherent in this part of a parent's role.