In 1998, a typical kid saw about 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television before she even got to middle school. That was long before kids could watch YouTube videos on tablets, play shooter-game apps on their smartphones or engage in virtual war video games whenever and wherever. Kids are being exposed to more violence—and experiencing it in more immersive ways—than ever before and, according to a new statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s likely to lead to more aggressive behaviours.
The policy statement titled “Virtual Violence” points to hundreds of studies that have collectively found associations between violence in the media and anger and aggression.
It stresses that children under the age of six need to be protected from portrayals of violence— even if it’s depicted in cartoon format, younger kids still have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. But children of any age can be affected by violent content. In fact, what’s particularly troubling to the lead author, Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, is how much more real and engaging modern portrayals of violence are.
“We know from decades of previous research looking at passive screen violence that the more realistic the portrayal is, the greater effect it has on children. In the case of video games, where it’s an interactive experience, the effects seem to be slightly larger still,” says Christakis. “Imminently, we’ll be adding virtual reality video games, which will be a surreally immersive experience where children will have the opportunity to feel like they’re in a war zone.”
All of this can take a toll on kids, though not everyone will respond in the same way. “The truth is that some children are affected more and some children are affected less,” says Christakis. “For parents who notice any aggressive tendencies in their child, it really is extremely important that they take a comprehensive look at their child’s media diet and curtail or even remove virtual violence from it.” Those aggressive tendencies could include behaviours like lashing out, making threats or being outright violent by hitting or kicking. Some kids might even act out scenes they’ve seen on screen. “It’s perfectly fine for children to pretend to be Batman, but if that turns to punching or kicking someone as Batman does, that’s going too far,” he says.
Of course, it’s best to limit your child’s intake of violent media before this even becomes an issue. The statement suggests parents keep an eye on what their kids are watching and play video games with them so they are familiar with the behaviours exhibited in those games.
Caroline Fitzpatrick, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Sainte-Anne's University who specializes in child development, suggests parents prevent kids from having access to media when they’re not around. “If a child is going to play video games, it’s better to have it in a family room that’s central, where parents can drop in and see what’s happening,” she says. Add a password to your devices, so that they can’t access media without your knowledge.
And if you realize your child is playing games where they’re rewarded for “killing” fellow players, which the American Academy of Pediatrics statement says are not appropriate for children of any age, Fitzpatrick suggest swapping them out for pro-social games, which reward helping others and have actually been associated with real-life behaviour improvements.
But not all violence is avoidable. After all, you can’t turn on the news without hearing about another tragedy that’s resulted from an act of brutality. Christakis says it’s about changing the conversation. “Point out, not just the horrible acts that have been committed by the violent perpetrator, but all of the people responding who are forces for good and who outnumber the bad guys in the scenario.”
And when family movie night happens to include a knock-down fight or a murder on-screen, help your kids understand the consequences of that violence. “Ask: ‘How does this person’s family feel now?’ ‘What would the alternative have been here before resorting to violence?’” says Christakis. “Too often in portrayals on screen, violence is the first resort and it really should be the last resort.”