TCS Daily


Porn and Violence: Good for America's Children?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week, I responded to James Glassman's observation that American teenagers are doing better than they've done in decades by trying to figure out why that might be. Teen pregnancy is down, along with teen crime, drug use, and many other social ills. There's also evidence that teenagers are more serious about life in general, and are more determined to make something worthwhile of their lives. Where just a few years ago the "teenager problem" looked insoluble, it seems well on the road to solving itself. But why?

After that column came out, it occurred to me that I had the answer: Porn and videogames. That's what's making American teens healthier.

It should have been obvious.

After all, one of the great changes in teenagers' social environments over the past decade or so has been far greater exposure to explicit pornography, via the Internet, and violence, via videogames. Where twenty or thirty years ago teenagers had to go to some effort to see pictures of people having sex, now those things are as close as a Google query. (In fact, on the Internet it takes some small effort to avoid such pictures.) Meanwhile videogames have gotten more violent, with efforts to limit their content failing on First Amendment grounds.

But -- despite continued warnings from concerned mothers' groups -- teenagers are less violent, and they're having less sex, notwithstanding the predictions of many concerned people that such exposure would have the opposite effect. More virtual sex and violence would seem to go along with less real sex and violence.

The solution is thus obvious -- we need a massive government program to ensure that no American teenager goes without porn and videogames Let no child be left behind!

Well, no. Not even I'm ready to argue for that kind of legislation, though I suppose that candidates interested in the youth vote might want to give it a thought...

But the real lesson is that complex social problems are, well, complex, and that the law of unintended consequences continues to apply.

When teen crime and pregnancy rates were going up, people looked at things that were going on -- including increased availability of porn and violent imagery -- and concluded that there might be something to that correlation. It turned out that there wasn't. Porn and Duke Nukem took over the land, and yet teenagers became more responsible and less violent.

Maybe the porn, and the videogames, provided catharsis, serving as substitutes for the real thing. Maybe. And maybe there's no connection at all. (Or maybe it's a different one -- research indicates that teenagers, though safer and healthier, are also fatter -- so perhaps the other improvements are the result of teens sitting around looking at porn and videogames until they're too out-of-shape and unattractive for the real thing...) Most likely, the lesson is that -- once again -- correlation isn't causation, despite policy entrepreneurs' efforts to claim otherwise.

But regardless, the fears of the doomsayers were proven wrong. People can continue to claim that psychological research suggests that videogames lead to violence and that porn leads to promiscuity, but in the real world the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. That's an argument against regulating videogames -- and it's an argument for taking other claims of impending social doom with a grain of salt.

And maybe it's an argument for surfing porn and playing shoot'em-up games, too. After all, as the activists say, if it saves just one child, it's worth it...


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