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Media Violence and Behavior

 
 

Television, Video Games and Aggressive Behavior

The effects of media violence on children have been studied for over thirty years, with researchers repeatedly finding correlations between aggressive/violent behavior and the viewing of media violence. These education and psychology researchers began asserting years ago that a cause-and-effect relationship existed, i.e., viewing media violence was one of the causative factors in aggressive behavior in children.

On July 26, 2000, four major health organizations released a two-page statement that contained the following text: "At this time, well over 1,000 studies . . . point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some students."
(see footnote 1) This statement endorses the position held by numerous researchers that media violence can cause aggressive/violent behavior in some children.

Children are Impressionable
We often use the phrase that "children are impressionable." We mean that children do not see the world through the same filter of experience that adults do. Children see things more literally. They do not yet possess the sophisticated sensibilities to distinguish fiction from reality. It matters a great deal, therefore, how much TV children watch and what they view.

How the Media Can Affect Behavior
How does viewing media violence actually foster aggressive behavior? At least two mechanisms are at work:

1. Young children often mimic what they see. Parents and caretakers observe this regularly. If children see people punching and kicking, they may act out that same behavior.

2. Older children develop, through years of watching, sub-conscious mental plans of how they will react in conflict situations. For years they have seen conflicts resolved by violence, and they sub-consciously develop the same reaction plan. When confronted with a conflict, the tendency is to react the way they have seen countless others react—in a combative, aggressive or violent manner. Researchers call this developing a "cognitive script."

The Media and Conditioning
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s compelling book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, identifies three conditioning factors to which our children are subjected: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning.
(1) Through television, video games, and movies, children and teens view countless acts of violence, brutality, and terror as part of entertainment. They become conditioned to associating violence with entertainment. This is the classical conditioning.

(2) First-person shooter video games develop our children’s skills in operating weapons. The games reward marksmanship, and further reinforce the association of killing with entertainment.

(3) In the past, the heroes of movie and television shows were usually people who strictly followed the law. Now, heroes are often people who take the law into their own hands, who see an injustice or evil and seek to rectify it personally, sometimes brutally, regardless of the consequences. Such portrayals signal to a child society’s approval of that behavior. Lacking the judgement that comes with age, a child who feels he has been dealt with unfairly may copy that behavior, with disastrous consequences.

Actions Parents Can Take
(1) Reduce the amount of time your children watch TV. Dr. Thomas Robinson, of the Stanford University School of Medicine, showed that simply reducing TV viewing time reduced children’s aggressive/combative behavior.
(see footnote 2)That is, his study did not seek to reduce the viewing of TV with violent content, but simply to limit TV viewing by children to seven hours per week or less.

(2) Provide/recommend alternative activities for children. For young children, see our list at alternative activities. For children of high school age, alternatives abound, including listening to music, visiting with friends, studying, recreational reading, school clubs, and sports. A parent might also suggest that they read one of the books by Neal Postman (e.g., Amusing Ourselves to Death) and then discuss its content with you, or use it as a book report in school. In this way, you invite the student to debate your decision to limit TV viewing and engage him in a critical examination of TV’s effects on society.

(3) Help your child select age-appropriate programs. Do not assume that children of high school age or less truly view a TV show with the same understanding that a parent does. Talk about the program with the child, discussing its content, the decisions made by the characters, the alternatives they had, and the way the characters were portrayed.

(4) Avoid putting a TV in a child’s room. Let TV viewing be something a parent can monitor.

(5) Turn off the TV when the program you are watching has concluded. That is, watch a "program" not "TV." Demonstrate to your child selectivity in TV viewing. Do not leave the TV on when no one is watching it.

(6) Have dinners together with the TV off. Use dinner time to listen to your child’s activities and concerns, and let your child hear about how you spent your day, including its good aspects and frustrating ones. Children want to know their parents, what they value, what they do, what they think. Trying to influence your child’s behavior in the adolescent years can be a frustrating experience if you have not forged a close relationship much earlier.

(7) Do not purchase, or permit in the house, violent video games. Let your child know that you disapprove of those games, and explain why: (a) That you do not believe a game whose objective is to kill or injure another is a suitable form of entertainment; (b) That whether we believe it or not, we are influenced by what we do. Finding violence entertaining can have damaging consequences on our emotional development. It can also desensitize us to the pain real violence actually causes.

Your child may seek other opportunities to play these games, but at least he knows, and is influenced by, your beliefs about such games.

1 From two-page "Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children," Congressional Public Health Summit, July 26, 2000. Statement signed by presidents of American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

2 Robinson, Thomas N., Marta L. Wilde, Lisa C. Navracruz, K. Farish Haydel, Ann Varady, "Effects of Reducing Children’s Television and Video Game Use on Aggressive Behavior," Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, Vol. 155, Jan. 2001.

 
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