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Brutal Blitz: Protecting Tweens From On-Screen Violence

Malia Jacobson

Published on: December 28, 2012

violent video gameAt first glance, Colby Burch of Dupont, Wash., seems like any other 11-year-old boy. He enjoys school, hanging out with his friends and playing with his little sister, Bailey, 3.

But one family rule sets Colby apart: He’s not allowed to play the violent video games, like Call of Duty, that are popular with his peers. His mom, Melissa Burch, feels that Colby doesn’t yet understand war or current events well enough to be able to interpret that kind of on-screen violence.

“We’re an Army family, and video games like that hit too close to home,” she says.

Although restrictions like the one enacted by the Burch family can help, protecting kids from an onslaught of media violence is increasingly difficult. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that the average child views 200,000 acts of violence on television by the age of 18.

In fact, the National Television Violence Study found that children’s programming contains more violence than programming directed at adults: A full 100 percent of animated feature films produced between 1937 and 1999 contain violence, compared to 61 percent of all broadcast programming.

Even more disturbing, the AAP reports that media violence is becoming more malicious — an increasing number of violent acts in media feature an 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 Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, youth who witnessed violence were more likely to be victims of violence themselves.

When faced with an assault of media violence, parents wonder, what’s the impact of all this violence on tweens? Does on-screen aggression play out in real life? And how can parents best shield their growing children?

Critical impact

Moms like Melissa Burch 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 — which alters 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. But 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 viewed high-violence media content (in shows such as Roadrunner cartoons) between the ages of 6 and 10 were more likely to have shoved or pushed a spouse as an adult.

Violent vids

Though the negative impacts of violent media are sobering, all media are not created equal, says Bushman. One type — interactive, violence-glorifying video games — is particularly concerning. “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, explicit 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,” says Bushman. 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

Melissa Burch’s “no violent video games” rule isn’t popular with Colby. But media restrictions and limits are important ways that parents can help protect kids from the negative impact of violent media, says Michelle M. Garrison, Ph.D., 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, notes Garrison. “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.”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer and mom of two. She blogs about sleep and family health at The Well Rested Family.

Fighting back: How parents can reduce the impact of violent media

  • Evaluate your child. Violent media won’t affect all children equally. Impacts are more profound in children who are more aggressive to begin with, preschool-age children and those who may have witnessed real-life violence. Consider stricter media restrictions if your child falls into a high-risk category.
  • Examine your child’s media diet. Not all media are created equal, so take your child’s media consumption and preferences into account when setting media limits. Researchers and doctors are particularly concerned about graphically violent video games; set media limits accordingly.
  • Reduce the rampage. Media limits are important, because research shows increasing negative impacts for each additional hour of violent media a child consumes. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about age-appropriate media limits.
  • Watch or play together. Viewing violent media with your child is a starting point for mean­ingful conversations. Ask, “Why do you think that happened?” “How do you think the victim felt?” and “What could have been done differently?”

Source: Michelle M. Garrison, Ph.D., Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Talking to children about real-life violence

After real-life violent events such as the horrific December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., graphic media coverage tends to fill television screens, computer monitors, and radio waves for weeks. How can parents talk to children about these event and other episodes of shocking violence?

Experts advise limiting children’s television viewing the wake of a tragedy like this one, because children often cannot distinguish between on-screen images and their own personal reality. Children exposed to endless loops of replayed violent events on television can experience “secondary terrorism,” a phrase coined by psychologists after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Parents can help children feel safer by not oversharing about tragic events, says Dr. Allen E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. Now is not the time to teach children about evil and violence, he says. If young children are not aware of the incident, don’t bring it up. When a child presses for answers about why this happened, simply say “we don’t know why,” and avoid giving unneeded details.

Seattle parent educator and coach Sarina Natkin, L.C.S.W., advises parents to use straightforward words like “death” and “dead” when discussing mortality with children. “If children ask what ‘dead’ means, parents can say ‘that means we don’t see him any more,’” she says. Parents can comfort children by embracing a normal family routine and offering reassurance that, “the event is over and you are safe. Now we’ll do everything possible to get things back to normal.”

(For more information on discussing death with children, refer to December’s feature story “Mortality: How Do You Talk to Kids About Death.”)
—Malia Jacobson

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