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Violence and aggression: media mayhem affects kids

By the time kids enter middle school, they will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 more acts of violence on broadcast TV alone. And studies show it affects their behavior.

Played a T- or M-rated video game lately? Watched a cop show? Followed a gangsta rap feud, seen an action movie or checked in on one of the many celebrity smackdowns? Violent and aggressive behavior shows up everywhere. And it's not simply passive; as video games take center stage, they allow players to maim, kill and create all kinds of havoc. In fact, that's how games are won. Studies show that aggressive gaming affects kids - so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concluded that "playing violent video games leads to adolescent violence like smoking leads to lung cancer."

Why You Should Care:

Because the studies don't lie. Lots of violence affects kids' behavior. Period. When kids marinate in media steeped in acts of aggression, it can increase anti-social activity and bullying, and decrease empathy for victims of violence. The more aggressive behavior kids see, the more it becomes an acceptable way to settle conflicts. Movies with scary images, intense peril, loud noises and, above all, blood and gore, create all sorts of disturbances, including increased anxiety, sleep disruption and wicked nightmares. And those first-person-shooter video games? The intimacy of the mayhem and murder pack such a huge emotional punch that they alter brain chemistry.

Some Facts You Should Know

  • Nearly 2 out of 3 TV programs contain violence, averaging 6 violent acts per hour.
  • The average child who watches 2 hours of cartoons per day may see more than 10,000 violent acts a year.
  • There are more than twice as many violent incidents in children's programming than in other types of programming.
  • Teens who watch more than 1 hour of TV per day are 4 times more likely than other teens to commit aggressive acts in adulthood.
  • In a study of third- and fourth-graders, reducing TV and video game consumption to less than 1 hour per day decreased verbal aggression by 50% and physical aggression by 40%.
  • According to the AAP, violence is a leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults - more prevalent than disease, cancer or congenital disorders.
  • By the time kids enter middle school, they will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 more acts of violence on broadcast TV alone.
  • Younger kids are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of media violence - especially those under 7 who can't easily distinguish between fantasy and reality.
  • The younger kids are when they see a violent or scary movie or TV show, the longer-lasting the effects - particularly in nightmares and increased anxiety.

Common Sense Says

  • Explain consequences. What parent hasn't heard "but there's no blood" as the justification for seeing a movie or playing a video game? Explain the true physical consequences of violence. Point out how unrealistic it is for people to get away with the kind of mayhem modeled in media. Explain how games, in particular, actually encourage and reward violent acts (how else can you win?).
  • Teach conflict resolution. Kids know that clocking someone on the head isn't the way to solve a disagreement, but verbal cruelty is also violent. Teach kids how to disengage, use their words and stand up for themselves without throwing a punch.
  • Be age appropriate:
  • Kids ages 2-4 often see cartoon violence. But keep them away from anything that shows physical aggression as a means of conflict resolution, because they'll imitate what they see.
  • For 5- to 7-year-olds, cartoon rough-and-tumble, slapstick and fantasy violence are OK, but violence that would reasonably result in death or serious injury is too scary.
  • 8- to 10-year-olds can handle action-hero sword fighting or gunplay as long as there's no gore. Violence should have consequences.
  • For 11- to 12-year-old tweens, historical action is OK, including battles, fantasy clashes and duels. But close-ups of gore or graphic violence (alone or combined with sexual situations) aren't recommended.
  • Kids ages 13-17 can and will see shoot 'em ups, blow 'em ups, high-tech violence, accidents with disfigurement, or death, anger and gang fighting (and with HDTV, they will really see things!). Point out that the violence portrayed is hurtful and causes suffering. And limit time exposure to violence, especially in video games.
  • No M-rated games for kids younger than 16 or 17. Sure, the kid down the street has the latest cop-killer game. But these games are ultra-violent and often sexually violent. That's not good for developing brains and social development.
  • Don't let kids immerse themselves in violent content. Keep an eye on the clock. The more time spent with violent content, the greater its impact and influence.

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Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parents make informed media and entertainment choices for their families.

Comments from readers

"'Because the studies don't lie. Lots of violence affects kids' behavior. Period.' Actually, the studies do lie, or are at the very least, misleading. Most studies that purport to show a media-violence connection show only a correlation, not cause and effect. In addition, the majority are conducted in laboratories under artificial conditions, so they are not indicative of how someone will behave in the real world. Also, the ways used to measure 'aggression' (which is not the same thing as violence) consist of actions such as hitting dolls, popping balloons, recognizing aggressive words on a computer screen, and giving someone a more difficult puzzle to solve. All of these are radically different from violently, physically attacking someone out of anger (as opposed to play-violence, which is in and of itself harmless unless it is too rough). Finally, the studies suffer from a phenomenon called demand characteristics, meaning that people participating in the study will behave in a way to prove the researcher's hypothesis correct, in order to be a 'good subje! ct.' Thus someone entering a study on aggression will be predisposed to act aggressively, skewing the results. The studies, therefore, have many flaws that one cannot truly say they establish a connection to violence in real life. I recommend the books 'Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence' by Gerard Jones, and 'Grand Theft Childhood' by Cheryl Olson. These books actually provide evidence that media violence can benefit kids by providing a fantasy world where they can feel strong and powerful, when that is not often possible in the real world. This is an often-ignored benefit of action-filled media."
"It is time parents actually use discernment and act like parents. If you want your children to make something of their lives, teach them the classics not pond scum. Why would any parent want their children to reach for scum when so much better is out there. I want MORE for my children, shouldn't you?"
"I think if small kds, that is ages between 0-4 years see cartoons like Baby Einstein or Dora or Pbs kids or for that matter Mickey Mouse, is all fine if viewed for an hour or so, as it makes them learn so many different things which are necessary for their intellectual development. "
"Please write an article explaining the study: Bo Bo the Clown used in Educational Psychology college classes for teachers. It explains how parents speaking up define right from wrong. It explains that parents who do not speak up are effectively, although passively, agreeing with what is viewed and offers no resistance to urges to recreate the violence as a coping mechanism or as fun. This is a class every one of my children will take as an elective in college their first or second year. I recommend it for every parent."
"I love Common Sense Media. They did a workshop at my child's school. It's a great resource!"
"I agree that parents should limit the amount of violence, whether video games, TV or movies, that their children watch. However, I do NOT believe that watching violence is going to make someone go on a shooting spree. I believe there is proof that the shooters in Columbine, Va Tech and the other schools massacres were mentally and/or emotionally disturbed. In most of those cases the parents, teachers, doctors and the system failed to recognize and/or act upon clear signs of mental illness. Parents and schools can provide stability and BALANCE in our fast paced and stressful society. "
"are you stupid i kill lots of people in games and you dont see me going on a wild killing spree. so think about that."
"I am dealing with this problem as of this week. child is in 7th grade, playing too much of new comp. game, war game. "
"This is completely wrong kids dont go out and see a movie where someone kills someone and then does it themselves there not that stupid they dont play a bad video game and then go do what they saw. this is half way parents fault. they buy the games in which kids see the violence and allow them to go to that movie with all the violence"
"The studies are bunk, the media in any study, was (and i can almost garantee this) was not consumed the way it was meant to be,all these studies have not improved at all, becuase they havent changed anything, of course a violent person would like to play a video game that has violence, but what is not proven is that the person youre testing on wasnt violenct in the first place."
" My son, a student at Va Tech; had friends massacred video game style at Va Tech- several shot in the face; all victims with at least 3 gunshot wounds. All beautiful young adults working hard to achieve their dreams and help the world. The gunmen's role models were Columbine killers and video games! Would you please encourage all school principals to send these facts re: TV and gaming violence and behavior to all Parents?! Encourage the media to produce less violent and more socially moral shows depicting positive character traits! Please make these violent behavioral facts known via PSA's for TV, radio,etc Thank You for your concern!"