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Kids have easy access to explicit music but have a harder time getting violent video games

April 20, 2011 | 12:53 pm

For a kid, scoring a music CD with explicit lyrics is easy. But good luck when it comes to getting that new, blood-splattered horror game.

A sting operation conducted by the Federal Trade Commission between November and January found that 64% of kids were able to buy music CDs with a "parental advisory" label. But when the undercover, underage shoppers tried to buy a video game with a "mature" rating, only 13% slipped through. The other 87% were stopped cold.

For movies, 38% of kids were able to buy an R-rated DVD, while 33% were able to buy a ticket to see an R-rated movie in a theater.

FTC Violence Survey 
With the exception of movie theaters, retailers improved their enforcement over 2009, and all retailers showed progress since the FTC began its investigations in 2000.

"But more needs to be done," David Fladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.

The issue of media violence has taken on broader resonance as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the constitutionality of a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors and fine retailers that do so. The court is expected to issue its opinion on the case this spring.

Retailers saw the FTC report as fresh ammunition against the law.

"These numbers demonstrate once again that industry self-regulation can and does work, and there is no need for punitive government regulation, such as the California video game law," Bo Andersen, president of the Entertainment Merchants Assn., said in a statement.

But family advocates echoed the FTC's statement, praising the progress being made at retail stores, but pointed out that games, as with music and videos, are increasingly available online where there are fewer checks than in stores. The Entertainment Software Rating Board earlier this week announced that it would apply a more streamlined procedure to rate downloadable video games sold over Internet-connected consoles. The decision rattled parent advocates who feared that the new process meant that fewer games would be reviewed for compliance with the voluntary ratings system.

"It’s good to see signs that retailers are making progress on enforcing the ESRB ratings about content that’s not designed for kids," said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media, an advocacy group in San Francisco, "but as the FTC points out, there is more work to be done. The study is a reminder of how important it is to have adults making sure that unaccompanied kids aren't purchasing M-rated games – and it raises serious questions about the ESRB’s troubling decision to use computers, instead of adults, to auto-rate downloadable games.”

The report on the FTC survey included a breakdown of compliance by retailers and media. Among music retailers, Target was least strict, allowing 77% of undercover shoppers to buy CDs with explicit lyrics. Clerks at K-Mart, on the other hand, let just 29% of shoppers slip by.

For R-rated DVD movies, Target was again the most permissive, allowing six out of 10 mystery shoppers to buy, while Wal-Mart clerks let only 27% through.

Interestingly, the results were just the opposite when it came to video games. Target scored best when it came to policing games, with only 8% able to purchase an mature-rated game. Wal-Mart let 20% through, the largest percentage of the six retail chains in the survey. The inconsistency suggests that enforcement may be highly variable, depending perhaps on which clerk handled the transaction or which store was sampled. 

Among theaters, AMC Entertainment stopped nine out of 10 underage patrons from buying a ticket for an R-rated film. National Amusements prevented 55% from buying, making it the most lax of the eight theater chains surveyed.

-- Alex Pham

Chart: Federal Trade Commission

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