Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Thought

I had a thought about math last week.

The reason I had the thought was because I've been monitoring the pathetic attempts by our self-appointed moral watchdogs to censor Bully.

It's all been hilarious, really. The Outrage Machines were all cranked up to protest a game that encourage kids to BE bullies, and Rockstar pulled the rug out from under them and made a game about a kid defending himself FROM bullies.


So now, all these people are dancing the desperation fandango, trying to find an angle where they can still be outraged and generate lots of publicity for themselves and (in most cases) their non-profit foundations (which you should donate to, obviously, because they're trying to save our children).

See anything a little stinky there?

The second reason I had the thought involves a Dilbert cartoon that I've always remembered. Here's the dialogue:
Dilbert: I oppose putting career criminals in jail for life. Theres no evidence that longer sentences reduce crime.
Dogbert: So your theory is that when career criminals are in jail, other people commit more crimes to keep the average up.

That strip appeared in 1999, I think, and I've never forgotten it, because it was a sledgehammer argument based entirely on simple math.

I remembered that strip because I've always known that, some day, it would come in handy. And after seven years, that day has arrived.

Juvenile crime has dropped like a rock (across all racial and ethnic categories, to the best of my knowledge) since around 1994. It's roughly HALF what it was twelve years ago.

By any measure, that's an absolutely stunning success. From listening to the windbags of morality, though, you'd think that juvenile crime was an absolute epidemic.

It's not.

That's when it hit me: when kids are playing video games, or watching television, or spending time on the computer, do you know what they're not doing?

Committing crimes.

Sledgehammer math.

Back in the late 1970's, when I was in high school, the primary activity at night was "cruising." We all drove around town, usually in groups, for hours. Every night we could get together, that's what we'd wind up doing, because there wasn't anything else to do (except playing RISK, occasionally).

Most of the fights and trouble that I remember kids getting into involved cruising.

So is a kid be more likely to get in trouble while he's cruising around town for hours, or when he's inside playing a video game?

Take a look at this excerpt from a Kaiser Family Foundation study on media exposure (March 9, 2005):
Washington, D.C. – Children and teens are spending an increasing amount of time using “new media” like computers, the Internet and video games, without cutting back on the time they spend with “old” media like TV, print and music, according to a new study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Instead, because of the amount of time they spend using more than one medium at a time (for example, going online while watching TV), they’re managing to pack increasing amounts of media content into the same amount of time each day. The study, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds, examined media use among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 3rd through 12th graders who completed detailed questionnaires, including nearly 700 self-selected participants who also maintained seven-day media diaries.

The study - which measured recreational (non-school) use of TV and videos, music, video games, computers, movies, and print – found that the total amount of media content young people are exposed to each day has increased by more than an hour over the past five years (from 7:29 to 8:33), with most of the increase coming from video games (up from 0:26 to 0:49) and computers (up from 0:27 to 1:02, excluding school-work). However, because the media use diaries indicate that the amount of time young people spend “media multi-tasking” has increased from 16% to 26% of media time, the actual number of hours devoted to media use has remained steady, at just under 6 ½ hours a day (going from 6:19 to 6:21), or 44 ½ hours a week. For example, one in four (28%) youth say they “often” (10%) or “sometimes” (18%) go online while watching TV to do something related to the show they are watching. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of kids say they are using another media “most of the time” while watching TV (24%), reading (28%), listening to music (33%) or using a computer (33%).

Over six hours a day? No wonder juvenile crime has gone done. When exactly do teenagers have time to commit crimes anymore?

I'm not using any of these statistics to claim that we should be letting children play age-inappropriate games. But teenagers are not (and never have been) children. And the panic and moralizing about the "dangers" of violent video games are totally overblown.

Put it this way: would you rather have a fifteen-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto four hours a night with his friends or have him driving around in a car with those same guys for four hours a night?

We cruised around town every night because we were bored. Guess what--kids aren't nearly as bored anymore. It's much more interesting being a teenager than it used to be--video games and the Internet provide instant gratification.

I know there are discussions to be had about a culture of instant gratification, but that's a different discussion. And I would never propose that video games and computers are entirely responsible for the drop in juvenile crime. I do think, though, that they're one of the factors.

It's just math.

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