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By Carol Lloyd
Is all reading good reading?
And that’s when I really began to question the value of these books. Is there a threshold, after which our willingness to sink literary talons into young readers is actually a point of no return? Now that the YA category is being popularized among preteens, children’s literature includes a lot of books ostensibly not written for children.
In my family of peacenik iconoclasts (scant TV, no violent movies or video games, ever) my daughter eschewed the fourth and fifth grade reading obsessions that tore through my daughter’s peer group: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Uglies. We got no reprieve, of course, from the class-assigned books that seemed equally hell-bent on using violent extremes to engender a love of reading. In The Breadwinner, a children’s novella about life under the Taliban, the two young characters follow a crowd into a stadium thinking they are going to see a soccer match but instead watch a thief get his arm chopped off and a stray dog run away with the arm in his mouth. Then they read Zach’s Lie, about a kid whose family is stalked by thugs when they enter the witness protection program after his drug-running father flips for the CIA. In all these books there may be educational arguments — the depiction of violence teaches kids something about politics in another country, or um, best practices when dealing with Columbian cartels. And indeed, as an anti-tyranny epic with a strong female protagonist, one could argue that the blood in The Hunger Games isn’t spilled in vain, but has a higher purpose in the service of a nonviolent message.
Yet as I watched my 12-year-old become lost in Panem, I couldn’t help wondering what the hyperbolic violence was doing to her brain. In the online discussions about violence in children’s literature, an oft-stated defense is that it’s just a modicum of the violence children are exposed to from film, television, and video games. There’s no argument there — though it doesn’t apply to my kids. According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18 American kids will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 violent acts. And with the added bonus of violent video games like Call of Duty (where kids giddily earn points mowing down civilians who beg for their lives), there’s no doubt that violence is largely in the eye of the medium.
Does violent media beget violent kids?
There has been decades of research on the effects of violent media on children’s brains and just as many years of controversy about the results. For some the evidence is conclusive: according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the past three decades of “[l]ongitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental studies have all confirmed [the] correlation between televised violence and violent behavior among youth. One 15-year study published in Developmental Psychology found that exposing children to high levels of media violence led to higher levels of young adult violent behavior regardless of socioeconomic status, intellectual capacities, or earlier levels of aggression. (Men described as high TV-violence viewers were more than three times as likely to have been convicted of a crime compared to other men; high TV-violence viewing females were four times more likely to have beaten, punched, or choked another person.)
Despite what some researchers conclude is overwhelming evidence that violent media has a significant negative impact on children’s brains, many of these studies were based on self-reported data and therefore subject to criticism. But recently with the use of MRIs, researchers are getting a direct picture of how different kinds of stimuli affect the chemistry of young brains. In one recent study, MRIs of adolescents who played violent video games contrasted markedly from those who played nonviolent video games. In the group playing violent games, the amygdala was more stimulated — the area of the brain associated with aggression and fear and there was less activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex (the region linked with self-control and decision making). In contrast, the group playing nonviolent video games used more of the pre-frontal cortex. Other MRI studies have found that repeated violent imagery leads to desensitization — that is, after a while violence isn’t really very alarming and doesn’t set off the same neurological response.
Does this mean children who watch, read, or play violent media will turn out to be sociopathic monsters? There’s no evidence of that. But we do know that violent media does affect the brain, in the moment and over the long term. “Although brain imaging studies are sparse at this point, the behavioral evidence that violent media increases aggressive behavior, thought, and emotions is overwhelming (we are looking at several hundred studies here),” explains Maren Strenziok, researcher of violent video games at George Mason University, adding that studies have found that the likelihood of showing increased aggression after exposure to media violence is about equal to that of getting lung cancer from smoking. “Nobody would deny that smoking causes lung cancer, but a lot of special interest groups have been downplaying the negative effects of violent media.”
So what’s a parent to do whose children like a steady diet of thrill ’em, kill ’em media? Strenziok is unequivocal. “My philosophy is better safe than sorry. Think about it, there is certainly no evidence that viewing violence promotes emotional health or contributes positively to their overall development. I think that parents are asking themselves the wrong question. Rather than trying to find evidence that their child will get away with no harm when being exposed to violent media, I think the question to be asked here is does it promote their child's development? I am sure that most parents would answer this question with no." For a rollup of myths and facts about media violence research by one of the leading psychologists who think the evidence is irrefutable, check this out.
Next page: Gory then, gory now
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