Summer is a time when schedules ease and school routines are disrupted. Camps, outdoor activities, vacations, playtime and relaxation are all healthy ways to take a break from the stressors of the school year. But for many children, time off also means increased screen time and frequently the content they are exposed to through television, social media and video games includes a lot of violence.
The average American child spends three to five hours of each day watching television. That’s 1,500 hours per year in front of the TV compared to only about 900 hours in school.
Children’s TV shows contain about 25 violent acts per hour. That means they see about 10,000 violent acts per year. The average child sees 8,000 murders by the end of elementary school and 200,000 acts of violence by age 18.
More than 60 percent of TV programs contain violence. Seventy-five percent of violent scenes show no punishment for, or condemnation of, violence.
What are the consequences of this level of exposure to violence for children?
Decades of research show that frequently viewing violence on TV, in movies or on the computer can affect children in four significant ways:
- Increasing aggressive behaviors
- Desensitizing them to what they are seeing
- Making them more fearful
- Exposing them to negative and harmful messaging.
Psychologist Albert Bandura conducted the first research linking media violence with childhood aggression in 1961. He suggested children learn through modeling — meaning they imitate the actions of others, especially adults. His experiments involved children watching a movie of adults and interacting with a large plastic doll that bounced back when hit or pushed. The children who watched the adults being aggressive with the toy figure were more likely to be aggressive with other children during playtime. Subsequent studies have found preschoolers who watch violent cartoons are more likely to hit playmates and to disobey teachers than children exposed to nonviolent shows.
Research also has found associations between childhood exposure to violent media and an array of problems in adulthood. For example, men who were “heavy viewers” of TV violence as children were twice as likely to physically abuse their spouses, compared to those who watched less violence as children. The results are similar for women (Levy and Orlans 2000).
Children who witness considerable media violence can become desensitized — or less shocked by violence, less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and less likely to show empathy for victims of violence.
Violent media — and specifically violent video games — desensitize children. Many popular games are even similar to modern military training techniques that desensitize soldiers to killing. For example, only about 20 percent of soldiers in World War II actually were able to shoot the enemy. However, during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of soldiers could shoot and kill without hesitation. The change was attributed to new training procedures that included having soldiers practice shooting human-shaped figures rather than bulls-eyes (Grossman and Siddle, 1999). Lifelike video game violence desensitizes children in the same way, and leads to automaticity — or the learning of a behavior to the point that it becomes reflexive.
Fear is another result of media violence. Children and adults can become anxious and even traumatized by the violence they see on TV and in movies. Remember the film “Jaws?” Were you afraid to swim in the ocean afterward?
Media violence gives children the message that aggression and violence are acceptable solutions to conflicts and problems. In many homes, children identify with TV, movie and video game characters and look to them as heroes, role models and parent figures. A three-year study sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and published in 1995 had alarming findings about how violence is portrayed:
- Almost half of violent scenes on TV involved attractive, hero-type characters worthy of emulation. 70 percent of those characters showed no remorse;
- 50 percent of violent scenes showed victims without any pain, and
- 40 percent of all violence was combined with humor.
The message is that violence is painless and a desirable problem-solving tool. Again, the negative effects of media violence are multiplied for children with frightening and traumatic backgrounds. Their anger, fear and lack of self-control are easily triggered.
Why storytelling is better than media
Telling children stories has been part of our heritage since time immortal. Storytelling is still the way primitive creatures pass on the history, traditions and meaning of their culture. Children naturally love to listen, and are captivated by every word of a good story or fairytale. The story causes the child to turn inside and create mental pictures to correspond with the spoken words. The internal imaging stimulates the child’s brain, and is the foundation for the development of symbolic thought (how we picture things). Exposure to storytelling, reading materials, and conversations form the foundation for a young child’s literacy.
Television presents both a verbal and visual image at the same time. Nothing is left to the imagination. The child is deprived of the self-generated imaging required by his developing brain. Without adequate stimulation, the brain does not make new connections. To put it simply, watching television doesn’t challenge the brain; it actually pacifies the brain and puts it to sleep. The child’s television-induced stupor puts their brain on autopilot and impedes the development of their imagination.
Unimaginative children are more prone to violence, partly because they have difficulty imagining creative alternatives to their problems.
Tips to help parents make entertainment choices for their children
Monitor viewing. Limit the amount of time a child watches television or other media, and limit the type of exposure.
Set location for TVs and computers. Screens, televisions, computers and any other mobile devices should be in areas of the house where parents can supervise, monitor and engage with their children as they engage with media. Screens and devices should not be in bedrooms.
Encourage reading. Children watch less television when they read more. And good readers are also more likely to watch educational programs when they do consume media.
Provide guidance. Parents should watch programs with their children to foster communication and reinforce positive messages. Parents can also buffer negative messages and put them in appropriate contexts.
Set age limits. Do not allow children under age 2 to watch television because it may hamper language development and social interaction.
Limit commercials. Use streaming media services, videos and public television channels to reduce exposure to marketing messages and advertising.
Parents share ideas
Writing to us through Facebook, Adrianne Sylvester shared this:
“Over the summer, we started a new routine. Screen time of any sort is conditional on the kids’ morning “room check”: clean their rooms, make beds, bring laundry to me on laundry day, complete a daily chore, read for 30 minutes and then write a couple of sentences about what they read. Now that school is back in session, the reading has gotten pushed back to the evenings, and weekends for chores.
“Then they are allowed tv, video games, Fire tablets, Chromebook. I keep all devices in my room to charge at night. Everything has parental controls, they don’t have YouTube on their tablets…only my middle schooler has access to YouTube, and I check what he’s watching regularly.
“Before dinner each night, they’re expected to do another cleanup of toys, and put away laundry if it’s their day. If they didn’t do what they were supposed to, they lose screen privileges for the next day.
“As long as I stick to enforcing this system, it works really well! My kids also have a good sense about why we don’t watch or play violent things, and know that some content is simply inappropriate for any age. If they accidentally turn on something, they’ll turn it off right away. So far so good!”
Rose Williams wrote: “I have Parental Restrictions on all devices. I stop and check in on what is being viewed. Summer and weekends…tech time was more abundant. School days..1/2 hour…if school work and homework completed.”