Scholars to FCC: Media Effects on Social Behaviors Unclear

Chris Ferguson
Chris Ferguson, Ph.D.
Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., is associate professor and co-chair of Stetson’s Psychology Department.

Stetson University researcher, others claim FCC given one-sided information for TV ratings

Whether or not you agree with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) current ratings for television, the ratings should be based on the results of research rather than opinions, according to a group of more than 60 scholars and researchers. That group sent a letter to commissioners to express their concern over the mischaracterization of research results from studies on the effects of media on behavior of children.

According to the letter, the FCC was earlier sent information that presented one-sided information on the negative effects of media, and that the practice of citing only one — sometimes personal — point of view of “a contentious research field” allows “moral advocacy to intrude on good science” and damages psychology’s credibility in the process.

“We’ve had problems, among scholars but also among politicians and activists, with people making claims about the effects of media on young viewers that the data we have can’t sustain,” said Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., associate professor and co-chair of Stetson’s Psychology Department. “Despite decades of research, it’s been very difficult to find conclusive evidence for links between media consumption and youth behavior.”

The letter was sent in response to another missive from a group of academics suggesting that the FCC take another look at its television ratings system because of research showing that television viewing by young people has harmful effects on social behaviors. However, according to the latest letter, the research on media effects remains mixed and it is difficult to conclusively link objectionable media to negative outcomes in children.

“During the last two decades, most outcomes for youth have drastically improved, whether violent behavior, sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, or volunteerism, despite an increased plethora of media available to consume,” said Ferguson, who has conducted dozens of studies on media effects, including video games. In addition, increasing evidence suggests that media violence effects are minimal and often exaggerated, said the letter.

“Obviously, no one is against better ratings for TV shows and a lot of people might agree they could be improved,” Ferguson explained. “However, many scholars worry that using a pretense of ‘harm’ when there’s no clear evidence for harm may result in misleading ratings that may promote a moral agenda rather than give parents the kind of information they really want.”

“Before psychology as a field can become more efficient at giving the public good information, psychologists need to work on developing a scholarly culture of honesty about our data,” said Ferguson, “even if that means saying the data is messy, or that we don’t have the answer. We haven’t developed that culture yet. Until we do, the general public would do well to remain skeptical of claims of big effects coming from social science research. I think we’ll get there, but this incident is evidence we’re not there yet.”