Thursday, December 14, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

"Dangerous" Toys -- Then and Now

I spend a lot of time arguing with media critics who would like to see various types of content censored in the name of protecting children. Video games are usually at the top of their regulatory wish list. Some of these critics claim that video games are, at a minimum, creating a generation of slothful youth. But others make more grandiose claims that video games are training today's youth to essentially be cop killers or serial murderers. That's the conclusion of one book I read recently with the title (I'm not kidding) "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill." The authors of this over-the-top book argue that there is "a clear cause-and-effect relationship between screen violence and violent behavior."

But it just isn't true. As I documented in this recent study, juvenile murder, rape, robbery and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Overall, aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 43 percent from 1995-2004. And there are fewer murders at school today and fewer students report carrying weapons to school or anywhere else than at any point in the past decade. Other juvenile trends are improving, too. Alcohol and drug abuse among high school seniors has generally been falling and is currently at a 20-year low. Teen birth rates have hit a 20-year low in 2002 and fewer teens are having sex today than they were 15 years ago. High school dropout rates continue to fall steadily, as they have for the past 30 years. And although the teenage suicide rate rose steadily until the mid-1990s, it began a dramatic decline after that that continues today. (All these statistics are thoroughly documented in my study).

But let's set aside these meddlesome things called facts for a moment and ask a different question: Are the "games" that kids play today really more dangerous than the games older generations played when they were children? Are the electronically-rendered games that kids play today really more dangerous than the games children played back in the "good ol' days"?

What got me thinking about this website that one of my PFF colleagues brought to my attention entitled "The 10 Most Dangerous Play Things of All Time." It's a humorous look at some of the most dangerous toys and games of the past few decades. And when I say dangerous, I mean seriously dangerous toys -- as in death, dismemberment or poisoning. That kind of dangerous. And I'm proud to say that even though I owned and played with 3 of the toys on the "most dangerous" list, I made it out of childhood alive and unharmed! Nonetheless, the list is frightening.

The #1 most dangerous toy -- lawn darts or "Jarts" -- was one of the toys I owned. These things were always a disaster waiting to happen. Who was the sadistic freak at the toy factory that came up with the idea of a game that encouraged kids to throw sharp, winged projectiles up in the air? It was suppose to be a kids' version of the traditional adult game of horseshoes, but at least with horseshoes you didn't run the risk of having a 12-inch spike puncture your skull! Honestly, I had a lot of fun with yard Jarts growing up, but I do remember a few of my Indiana hillbilly friends occasionally trying to catch the Jarts in the air before they landed. (Not the smartest bunch I hung out with as a kid).

But the danger posed by yard Jarts pales in comparison to the #2 most dangerous toy: the "Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab," which -- get this -- featured "three 'very low-level' radioactive sources, a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson Cloud Chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a Spinthariscope (to see 'live' radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an Electroscope to measure radioactivity."

Are you kidding me? Who was in charge of this toy company -- Vladimir Putin? The toy was on the market in the 1950s and I guess it was a different era and that we didn't yet appreciate the dangers of radioactive elements. Nonetheless, I am still stunned that this stuff was ever marketed to kids. I guess nothing says happy holidays like radioactive Uranium samples under the Christmas tree!

And the list goes on. The #7 choice -- the 1964 "Creepy Crawler Thingmaker" from Mattel, featured a red-hot open-faced frier that could reach 310 degrees. Kids were encouraged to pour tubes of "plastigoop" into various molds to create multi-colored creatures. Hmmm, let's see... kids + hot stove + liquid plastic. No, that's doesn't sound like it would lead to any trouble or harm! Geesh.

Then there's the #8 choice -- the miniature "Johnny Reb Civil War Cannon" which fired hard, plastic cannonballs 35-foot across a room. And the #9 choice, the "Battlestar Gallactica Missile Launcher" was another one I owned as a kid. I remember my brother and I shooting these thing at each other all the time, but it really wasn't anymore dangerous than the dart guns that were wildly popular in those days. The #10 choice, the Fischer-Price mini motorcycle for kids, actually looks like a more serious hazard to one's health.

Anyway, as I was reading through this list, I started thinking about all the other dangerous things which I played with as a child, including: BB guns, sling shots, bows-and-arrows, model rockets, and firecrackers. Not every kid in America played with the same stuff growing up, but many did. And this is legitimately dangerous stuff. I remember another one of my hillbilly idiot neighbors having a BB embedded in his lip once while playing a game of "one-pump" BB gun wars. And I could regale you with endless stories about the trouble the boys in my neighborhood got themselves into while playing with model rocket engines and fireworks. (Of course, I was a nice boy who never did any of that. Yeah right).

So, let me pose the question again: Are video games really more hazardous to a kids' health then all this stuff? Now look, I am definitely not saying that it's healthy to sit on one's duff all day vegging out in front of a TV and game console playing violent video games. It's clearly good to get the kids outside to exercise and play some physical games on a regular basis, as I try to do with my two kids whenever I can. But when it comes to the free time your have on their hands, would you feel more comfortable with them playing with yard Jarts, mini-cannons, hot stoves, BB guns, bows-and-arrows, and all that other stuff, or would you rather have them sitting in the living room playing a few video games? As far as I know, no one's ever lost an eye or a limb playing a video game. But who knows, maybe the Nintendo Wii's new controller will one day make the "most dangerous toys" list!

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:10 PM | Free Speech , Generic Rant