Marcelle Abusalbi, MA-C—Sitting down to watch a movie with your child can be incredibly enjoyable. Whether it is a stay-in-Friday-night, TV watching, or a night out at a local cinema, it is fun to grab a snack or a vat of too-buttery popcorn, get comfortable, and experience a cartoon or new feature film.
If you’re like me you’ve ended up – no matter how well-intentioned– taking in movies that unexpectedly contain moments of physical altercation, sometimes intense. You’ve also been privy to dozens of cartoons or popular kids shows where people get beaten up, smacked, or attacked. Certainly we have movie ratings to guide us, G, PG, PG-13 – however, because every child has a different set of fears and sensitivities, there are still hidden moments that will create some sort of reaction.
Over time, we know that children will react in one of two ways – either fearful, or desensitized and therefore more likely to follow suit in enacting violent or aggressive behaviors. These psychological observations have perpetuated the topic of and questions regarding the effects of exposure to violence. How much violence is too much violence? And is there a long lasting effect of watching onscreen violence? And what are those consequences?
As early as the 1960s, studies began revealing a correlation between childhood aggression and TV and movie watching habits. Well known entities like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Institute of Mental Health have linked violent TV and movies with aggressive behavior in some young people. In child development classes I took at both undergraduate and graduate level, this correlational research caused many heated debates among students. Which came first? Is the child that reacts like this just naturally inclined towards aggressive behavior? Or is their behavior connected to violent scenes they have taken in?
When I became a parent this issue came to the forefront. First time parents first instinct is to protect that child from everything that some amount of research might suggest might do harm. And violence is simply everywhere on the airwaves. So the pull to act is strong. We want our children to be amazing little people that only contribute and never detract from the greater good of society. Simply put, parents will go to any length to ensure their children don’t become a statistic.
Children’s programs containing violence are divvied up into three categories: action/adventure, action/fantasy, and violent cartoons.
A National Television Violence Study, reviewing 10,000 hours of television programming, reported this:
- 60% of the programs sampled contained violent scenes
- 1/3 of the violent scenes showed villains who were never punished
- 70% of these villains showed no remorse when committing violence
- And sadly, fewer than 5% of the violent programs had anti-violence messages.
What is the mechanism of action? How does the correlation work? Researchers contend that children under the age or 7, who, because of their normal human brain development stage, cannot discern the difference between fantasy and reality, may imitate cartoon violence that are seen on shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers. Interestingly, one study of younger preschool-aged children showed that the children watching Batman & Superman were reported to be more physically active and aggressive than their cohort counterparts who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or other nonviolent programs. When the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, it is quite easy for our children to act out what they see, not understanding that in the real world, outside of TV and movie world, power punches result in hurt feelings, boo boos, and time outs.
Longitudinal research reveals a link between early childhood viewing habits and aggressive behavior at age 18. In these cases researches believe that desensitization and exposure to violence affects children’s attitudes toward violence and the world around them. Through desensitization the children purportedly learn by repeated viewing that harmful behaviors are okay – they are thus normalized – and they are no longer shocked by violence or its consequences. Remember the statistic from above? 1/3 of the offenders were never punished. 70% of villains showed no remorse. The message sent is “It’s okay to do bad things.” There is also something coined Mean World Syndrome, in which children exposed to much violence in TV programming arrive at the conclusion that the world is a dangerous and mean place – creating a sense of fear and reactivity.
So what do we do? As a new parent I wanted to pull my hair out. What was okay to watch? What was not okay? My now 14 year old loved the Batman cartoon series when she was very young – as her dad was a diehard fan of the comic book series. She took to it so much she started wearing a cape and a mask when we went on simple errands. I worried – was this going to affect her behavior at her childcare center? Was this ultimately contributing to her becoming a violent offender in 15 years?? Did I have to go to extremes and keep her from watching anything where a kick or a punch was featured? Would she watch only Sesame Street until young adulthood? Agh!
Luckily – it turns out there are super simple steps to take to ensure that your child can partake in “normal kid stuff” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and you will not have to fear their eventual incarceration at juvie.
Here is how to keep violence in movies and on TV from influencing your child’s behavior:
1 – Control the number of hours your child watches TV. There is no magic number, unfortunately. Every source will give you a different amount based on age. But, if TV has become the new babysitter, a consistent substitute for outside play and social or quiet play, or you’ve memorized the content of every commercial, chances are it’s too much screen time. And no judgement – TV is so easy to take advantage of on days where you’re absolutely exhausted and need to tune out alongside your six year old – I should know.
2 – Watch the programs with your child and discuss what your children see. In cartoons, we know that the characters can blow up to bits in one scene, and then magically resurrect themselves in the next, a la Looney Toons. Same for live action – bruises and damage to the physical self are never akin to what reality dictates. Talk about this discrepancy. “In real life, that person would need to go to the hospital.”
3- Talk values. What makes the “bad guy” on TV the “bad guy?” It is helpful to be specific, such as, Johnny in the show isn’t using his words to solve a problem he has with his friend. We don’t do that in this family.
Overall, the research isn’t so awful that we need to kill our television sets, stay away from all movies over a G rating, or move to another planet. TV isn’t inherently evil. In addition to educational programming, children can glean social norms, understand humor, and observe interpersonal relationships play out. Movies and some TV shows can also be a rite of passage, and it is a shame to pass some of those up. For example, it was extremely important to their dad that my daughters watch Star Wars – a movie he grew up watching containing some violence.
Like with anything, kids benefit from explicit guidance – and that is paired down to simple conversations.