Shielding Your Children from a Brutal Blitz

by Malia Jacobson

Whether children watch hours of television or just a few minutes a day, protecting them from an onslaught of media violence is increasingly difficult.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also reports that media violence is becoming more malicious – an increasing number of violent acts in media feature intent to injure. And 80 percent of violent acts portrayed in modern music videos target women and minorities, according to a study published in Pediatrics.
In another study, published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, youth who witnessed violence were more likely to be victims of violence themselves.
Even news reports after tragedies such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School or the latest bombing in Afghanistan contain graphic and disturbing images.
What’s the impact of all this violence on children’s growing minds? And how can parents best shield their growing children?
“Many studies have found that a subset of children are at increased risk of aggressive thoughts and behavior after exposure to violence on television or in video games,” says Dr. Shamina Henkel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and consultant at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Children who have emotional behavioral, learning or impulse control disorders are most at risk.”
But repeated acts of violence that are realistic and continuous can lead to aggression in other children, as well. “It’s important for parents to limit the kinds of exposure to violence their children have,” Henkel says. “Monitor what they are watching and talk to them about it. Tell them that violence is not the way to settle problems and does not fit with your family’s values.”

Critical Impact

Parents are right to be concerned, says Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at The Ohio State University School of Communication. Bushman studies the impact of media violence on behavior and says that, without question, media violence influences behavior. In particular, he says, research shows that violent media has three clear effects on viewers: It increases aggressive behavior, escalates fear and makes viewers numb to the suffering of others.
“People who view a lot of media violence are more likely to view the world as a hostile place, so they have more fear, and they’re also more likely to act aggressively toward others,” Bushman says.
Research also shows that after hours spent viewing graphic on-screen violence, real-life violent events seem tame by comparison, affecting people’s empathy toward victims.
In one of Bushman’s own studies on the topic, one group of students played violent video games, and another group played nonviolent video games. Afterward, all the students witnessed actors play out a real-life violent scene in which one party was injured and asking for help. Members of the group who played violent video games were about 450 percent slower to respond to the “victim’s” request for help, says Bushman.
“After watching people get their heads blown off on-screen, people are much less sympathetic to someone with a twisted ankle or a bloody nose,” he says. “It seems like no big deal.”
It’s also a myth that media violence only harms boys. Research shows that violent media have a similar effect on boys and girls. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that both women and men who had viewed high-violence media content between ages 6 and 10 (in shows such as Roadrunner cartoons) were more likely to have shoved or pushed a spouse as an adult.

Violent Videos

Though the negative impacts of violent media are sobering, all media are not created equal, Bushman says. One type – interactive, violence-glorifying video games – is particularly of concern.
“Violent media have more negative impact if the child identifies with the perpetrator, and in a violent video game, the child is literally playing the role of the perpetrator,” he says. Video games also offer immediate rewards for violent acts – a disembodied voice booms “Nice job!” when a player wipes out an opponent, for example.
“Based on research, it’s sound to say that active involvement enhances learning,” Bushman says. When it comes to violent video games, that type of actively involved learning is a bad thing, because a child who is actively involved in on-screen violent acts is literally learning violence firsthand, he notes.

Reducing Exposure

Media restrictions and limits are important ways that parents can help protect kids from the negative impact of violent media, says Michelle M. Garrison, a researcher with Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
“Reducing the amount of exposure to media violence definitely matters; we see larger effects with each additional hour of violent media,” she says.
But parents can go beyond simply limiting media exposure by viewing violent content with their kids and discussing it, Garrison notes. “Watching TV or playing video games along with children can be a great opportunity to see firsthand how violence is being portrayed. It can start some incredibly important conversations.”
“Playing video games with your children can mitigate some of the effects,” Henkel agrees, if you discuss the game with them and help them interpret what’s on the screen. When you supervise what they are watching, you’ll also get a better idea of how the screen violence is affecting them, she says.
Here are some signs your child might be too involved in video game action, Henkel says: He is obsessed with talking about the game; he would rather play the game than come to the dinner table or go out and play; he starts to mimic some of the behaviors on the video, such as shooting an imaginary gun.
How much exposure to violence is too much? As with most issues, it depends on the child. A mature, well-adjusted 12-year-old might be less affected than a 17-year-old with emotional problems.
For concerned parents, Henkel has a hopeful comment. “Children bounce,” she says. “Even as we make mistakes as parents, children have the ability to bounce back from those mistakes. Our goal as parents should be to help our children be resilient … even if we don’t have all the answers.”

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