by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut invigorated social interest in what leads to violence. The primary factors being debated include gun control, screening people who purchase guns (including their mental health status), and the impact of media violence.
While politicians debate about laws, one factor is under the direct control of all of us. Concerned parents can take a stand against violence by carefully monitoring their child’s access to violent content in television, music, and video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media published a report in its Nov. 2009 issue of Pediatrics detailing how media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior and the desensitization to violence, among other harmful effects. The impact of video games specifically on children is still being researched; however, it is likely that their danger is even higher than television and movies due to the interactive nature of the medium and the rewards and positive feelings that are granted for virtual violence (the points granted for killing others bring pleasure and satisfaction).
The process of monitoring exposure to violent media is easier when children are young and becomes much more difficult (maybe impossible) as children move into adolescence. But vigilance along with discussion of violence early in a child’s life may help him learn to make better decisions about what to watch and play when parents aren’t around. Moreover, informed children and adolescents will learn to interpret negative messages in a more critical way and be less vulnerable to the ill effects of media violence.
Unscripted play is okay
While it may seem counterintuitive, I advise parents to take a liberal view when it comes to toy gun play. Children have an innate drive to understand their world. One of the primary ways children advance their learning is through play. I am not recommending that parents stockpile toy guns in the nursery; however, when a child holds up a stick to represent a gun or sword, or when violent themes make their way into child play, this should be allowed. Parents should not interfere in play and should not put children down for exploring darker themes in play.
Often times the morals we want children to learn about violence are reinforced through play (if the child has been taught that violence leads to negative outcomes). In other words, the aggressor in play is usually the bad guy who gets his comeuppance. Unfortunately in the media, especially in violent video games, the opposite is true; the aggressor wins! This sort of content along with humorous portrayal of violence and death may be the most damaging models for children.
Replacing screen time with family time
In addition to monitoring content and teaching children about the negative effects of aggression, parents must limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics is very conservative about this; however, a reasonable guideline is no more than one to two hours of screen time per day for older elementary school kids and adolescents and less than one hour for preschoolers and young elementary students (this includes TV, video games, internet surfing, movies and so forth). Instead of screen time, parents can make family meals, exercise, game nights and reading part of the daily routine. This often requires sacrifice and self-discipline for parents as well as children.
In addition, parents and children can volunteer and do service projects, or advocate in other ways to advance goodwill and nonviolence. These activities not only get children away from screens, but also help strengthen the bond between parents and children (which are also compromised by too much screen time).
While the media is in a threatening position to supplant parents’ messages to children, youngsters are still more likely to emulate models that they love, respect and have a relationship with. In this way, we promote love in our communities by loving and relating to our children.