Kids and Violence in Media
How do the images our children see on TV, and in movies and video games affect them – and how can parents dial down the exposure?
With every school shooting, like December’s horrific massacre in Newtown, questions about guns in media and their connection to real-life violence bubble to the surface again. After all, there have been reports that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was a fan of the ultra-bloody Call of Duty video game series. But almost 13 years after Columbine, the connection is still murky. What does research really say about the connection between our kids and the gun-heavy imagery they see on screens? What – and how much – should parents do to mitigate aggressive copycat behavior?
The Star Wars Problem
It was not my proudest parenting moment. It was movie night and my 7-year-old daughter, Chloe, was begging for Star Wars. She’d seen it before and seemed to take its gore-free violence in stride. The problem was my 3-year-old son, Julian, who through the movies’ massive licensing reach, was already familiar with a galaxy far, far away. He already knew who Chewbacca was; would it really be so bad for him to see the actual movie?
He started pew-pew-pew-ing the next day.
Julian turned everything (Tinker Toys, tennis rackets, you name it) into a pretend gun and started running around the house like a pint-size Han Solo taking down Storm Troopers.
With the events of Newtown still fresh in my mind, I was horrified. We purposely don’t have any toy guns in the house, save a few squirt guns, but that didn’t seem to matter. With just one exposure, my baby had morphed into a gun nut.
Was Julian just being a typical boy, or on the precipice of a slippery slope? “There’s a certain amount of cowboys-and-Indians-type play and sorting through good guys and bad guys that is very normal at Julian’s age,” says Gwenn O’Keeffe, M.D., CEO of Pediatrics Now and a member of Parenting’s advisory board. “We have to allow for some normal child role-playing that lets kids sort out good versus evil and what’s acceptable in society.”
Sure, it’s normal, but is it healthy? Researchers who study TV’s effect on kids say this black-and-white view offered by the TV world can cripple kids living in a gray real world. “If a child sees himself as the ‘good guy,’ then anyone who disagrees with him must be a ‘bad guy’ -- and this black-and-white thinking doesn't leave much room for trying to see it from the other side, or working out a win-win compromise,” says Michelle Garrison, investigator at Seattle Children's Research Institute Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development. “On the other hand, if a child starts seeing himself as a ‘bad guy,’ then it may no longer feel like it's about choices and actions that can change.”