In a significant shift in thinking among child behavioural experts, 25 psychologists supported calls for tighter laws surrounding the supply of violent videos. Their report has been sent to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.
The influential group said: 'Many of us hold liberal ideas dear, but now we begin to feel that we were nave in our failure to predict the extent of damaging material and its all too free availability to children.' They argued that society must act to protect children.
This apparent change in thinking challenges years of argument among child behaviourists that there is no evidence to prove that screen violence corrupts and influnces youngsters. Critics, however, emphasise there is still no proof and many have attacked the suggested link between videos and child violence.
The report, by Professor Elizabeth Newson, an eminent psychologist and head of Nottingham University child development research unit, was drawn up in the aftermath of James Bulger's murder by two 10-year-old boys. At the boys' trial, the judge said their actions might have been encouraged by scenes in the horror film Child's Play 3.
The paper was sent to David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP who is trying to make it an offence to show gratuitously violent videos to children.
Mr Alton has tabled a Criminal Justice Bill amendment, due to be debated in the Commons on
12 April. He wants some videos to be classified as Unsuitable for Home Consumption (UNHC). He said yesterday that the paper supported his argument and he has sent it to the Home Secretary.
The group of respected experts signing the paper, Video Violence and the Protection of Children, includes Professor Andrew Sims, past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; Dr Stephen Wolkind, consultant child psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, south London; and Professor Barbara Tizard, former director, Thomas Coram Research Unit, London University.
The paper argues that many children regularly watch adult-only videos, with or without their parents' knowledge, and that parents are not necessarily going to protect or stop them.
It adds that child health professionals and psychologists have, up to now, 'underestimated the degree of brutality and sustained sadism that film-makers were capable of inventing and willing to portray, let alone the 'special effects' technologies which would support such images; and we certainly underestimated how easy would be children's access to them'.
Professor Newson also draws attention to recent academic research which links anti-social and violent behaviour with heavy exposure to media images, reversing the widely held view of academics that causal links between violent images and behaviour have not been reliably established.
Her report concedes that while poverty, child abuse and neglect have been part of many children's lives for years, 'the easy availability to children of gross images of violence on video' is a new factor.
The paper identifies key problems affecting behaviour and arising from violent videos:
The viewer receives the implied message that these images are all good fun.
The child viewer receives distorted images of emotions he has not yet experienced (especially dangerous when love, sex and violence are equated).
Brutality is portrayed in ever more 'entertaining' ways, to cater to jaded palates.
Victims are protrayed as sub-human, so they need not be pitied.
The paper concludes: 'Most of us would prefer to rely on the discretion and responsibility of parents . . . however, it is unhappily evident that many children cannot rely on their parents in this respect. By restricting such material from home viewing, society must take on a necessary responsibility in protecting children from this as from other forms of child abuse.'
However, Steven Barnett, a media analyst at Goldsmiths' College, London, said the paper reflected a current fad among child behaviourists. 'The trend at the moment is to say there's a link because that's what people want to hear. They ignore evidence that does not suit their theories,' he said.
A Home Office spokeswoman said last night that the report and a letter from Mr Alton had been received. 'It is a matter that the Home Secretary is very concerned about. It will be given urgent attention,' she said.Reuse content