By: David L. Hill, MD, FAAP
Science and common sense don't always tell us the same things, so it's especially satisfying when they agree. In the case of children's exposure to violent media, the science clearly confirms what we already suspect: what children watch and play changes how they behave.
Kids who experience more violence in their virtual worlds—television, movies, and video games—are more likely to display aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior, and angry feelings in the real world. See the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement, Virtual Violence.
"Not My Child"
Common sense, however, can still mislead us when it comes to thinking about our own children. Just as 93% of Americans report that they are better than average drivers, many of us tend to feel that the link between violent media and aggressive behavior affects other people's children. As a parent I've fallen into the same trap. I assume that violent games and programs can't affect my sweet son. Except that they do, and I have seen it.
The Blame Game
At the same time, we talk about what the science does show when we should talk about what it can't show. We will never be able to pin the blame for any single violent act on exposure to violent media, just as no one can say which hurricane or tornado results from global warming. What we can say is that violent media contributes to a certain amount of childhood and adolescent aggressive behavior. I think many would agree that anything we can do to reduce this aggressive behavior is well worth the effort.
Practical Steps Parents Can Take
If you have children under age 6, do your best to eliminate violent media content from their "media diet." Children this young don't have the capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality. Even cartoon violence alters how they understand the world.
Learn as much as you can about the media your children use. Refer to available ratings from industry (i.e., the Motion Picture Association of America, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board) and from nonprofits like Common Sense Media. Let those ratings guide what you allow in your home. Remember that "all my friends are allowed to watch it" remains the weakest argument in the kid book. See Movie Ratings and What They Mean.
Sit down and view or play with your children. Not only will you gain a deeper understanding of a really important aspect of their lives, you'll have a chance to offer an adult perspective on what they're seeing. You're guaranteed to find opportunities to share and explain the values that your family holds dear. Watch the video How to Bond with Your Child through Media.
Assess your children's shows and games with an eye toward what they're teaching. Is violence normalized? Funny? Sexy? Racist? Rewarded with money or status? Or are the painful, long-lasting consequences of violence dramatized? A more realistic look at the consequences of violence can provide kids needed perspective.
Feel empowered to restrict your children from playing games that reward shooting, killing, or harming other people. Video games are powerful teachers—they can help children learn to cooperate and help each other and to multitask in certain ways. However, video games can also reinforce a sense of constant danger and of positive reinforcement for violent acts. The gaming world offers enough compelling content that violence never has to be a part of entertainment.
Raising Peaceful Children in a Violent World
People have been hoping and praying for world peace for as long as there have been people and a world, and none of us expects to see aggression or violence eliminated in our lifetimes. We know, however, that helping our children choose less violent entertainment can make a very real difference in behavior for some kids, and that's an awfully good start.
Additional Information & Resources:
About Dr. Hill:
David Hill, MD, FAAP, practices at KidzCare Pediatrics in Wilmington, NC and serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UNC Medical School. He chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media (COCM) and serves on the board of the North Carolina Pediatric Society. Dr. Hill won the Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Award in 2013 for Dad To Dad: Parenting Like A Pro. He writes and broadcasts on child care issues for local and national radio, television, print, and internet-based media. Dr. Hill lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife, three children, and two step children.