Raising kids in a violent world is difficult. Raising them in a high tech world where virtual violence is pandemic is not only difficult, but increasingly complicated.
Just what are parents up against, and what can they do about it?
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says that a growing body of research shows a strong association between the perpetration of violence and the exposure to media violence.
Twenty years ago, when television had a virtual monopoly on virtual violence, a landmark study showed that the typical child saw 100,000 acts of violence before they reached middle school. And 200,000 by the time they turned 18.
With the dawn of technologies like tablets and gaming platforms, children and adolescents are increasingly exposed to onscreen violence that is “ever more intense and realistic,” according to the policy statement on virtual violence by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
What’s more, cell phone cameras can transmit videos of raw violence almost instantaneously on social media.
More disturbingly, interactive first person shooter games can turn players into “virtual perpetrators,” as they assume “the roles of aggressors and soldiers,” the AAFP said. Players win points or games for engaging in violent behavior.
Studies on the effects of media violence on children and adolescents have shown “increases in aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, bullying, fear, depression, nightmares and sleep disturbances,” the AAFP said. And the strength of that connection is almost as strong as that between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
With youths in the U.S. averaging more than seven hours a day on various screen devices, and billion-dollar media industries spending millions to target them, parents are literally in a battle for the minds of their children against onscreen media violence.
What’s at stake is how much these industries will influence children’s character and choices, who they want to be, who they will become, what values they hold, what they believe, how they resolve conflict and treat others.
Television has an enormous potential to be educational and entertaining. However, empirical evidence shows how destructive it can be if children’s viewing habits go unchecked.
Children’s shows are particularly violent, with almost 50 percent of television violence occurring in cartoons, according to the AAFP. Cartoon violence has been shown to increase the likelihood of aggressive, antisocial behavior in youth.
Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan found that “Most violent acts go unpunished on TV and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted. Many shows glamorize violence. TV often promotes violent acts as a fun and effective way to get what you want, without consequences.” (“Television and Children,” University of Michigan)
Children imitate the violence they see on TV, it said, and those under age eight cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
Aside from violence, studies have shown that media exposure can contribute to poor grades, risky behavior, sleep problems, fear of being harmed, obesity, diminished interest in reading, less time with family and friends, even having less empathy with others, not to mention exposure to higher levels of radiation.
What’s more, children are bombarded by commercials targeting them. On average, Michigan Medicine said, children annually see tens of thousands of TV commercials, including “about 2,000 beer and wine ads on TV each year. Kids see favorite characters smoking, drinking, and involved in sexual situations and other risky behaviors in the shows and movies they watch on TV.”
Finally, there is the growing risk of children developing online addictions, known as screen dependency disorders.
Dr. Kimberly Young, the founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, has identified key signs that indicate a possible online addiction. (See Internet Addiction Test and Internet Addiction Test for gaming.)
Among those are:
- Become defensive, deceptive or secretive when asked about what they are doing online or how long they’ve been online.
- Get annoyed or agitated if someone bothers them while online.
- Are tired or lose sleep due to being online.
- Neglect homework or chores to spend more time online.
- Choose to spend more time online rather than going out with friends.
- Feel depressed or irritable when they are off-line, but recover once back online.
- Claim they are “bored” when not online.
- Withdraw from activities that he or she previously enjoyed, to pursue activities only on digital devices.
So what can parents do?
Three key things:
First, limit your children’s screen time to minimize their media exposure. Young has developed Screen Smart Parenting Guidelines based on children’s developmental stages.
Second, just as you wouldn’t leave your kids alone with a stranger, don’t leave them with unknown forces on the Internet. Know what programs your kids watch and how they are being influenced.
And third, and perhaps most importantly, help them develop the analytical skills to deal with whatever they encounter.
The AAP says studies have shown that children who were educated about the media exhibited less violent behavior after watching violent programs.
With video games, parents should ask their children what games they play and how players get points, and how they win. Is it through violence as in first person shooter games?
By viewing programs and films with their children and then having discussions, parents can not only help their children analyze what they encounter, but strengthen the bonds between them.
The following are questions you may use to explore violence and other destructive themes in programs, books, films.
- What is the program or story really about? What message is it sending? What values is it conveying?
- What are the main conflicts, or complications? How are they resolved? Is violence used to solve the problems? If so, was it used as the last resort? Are they justified even if used by the “good guys?” How else could the conflicts have been resolved? Thinking of alternative endings is a creative, problem-solving exercise, one that will serve children for a lifetime.
- What purpose, if any, do the acts of violence serve? Are they gratuitous, glamorized, made exciting or fun, sheer entertainment? Or is it simply used as a way to get what a character wants?
- Are the acts of violence accompanied by humor? Are the effects or suffering they cause shown? Are the acts punished, or rewarded?
- Are the characters good role models? What motivates them? Do they stand for things you believe in? Are the consequences depicted if they engage in destructive behavior?
- In stories about bullies, is the pain of the victims depicted? If not, explore how they must have felt.