Protecting Tots from Media Violence

Is there research that links exposure to violent media with aggressive behavior in preschool-aged children?

Stacie, Minnesota

Stacie, We humans come from a long line of storytellers. Humans pass stories down from one generation to the next to transmit values, cultural norms, a sense of right and wrong, and an appreciation of place and history. This isn't new. It's been true for thousands of years. What is new in the 21st century, is that we’ve delegated the storytelling to mass media. Some media take this art to new heights, while others don't. Many specialize in dishing out heaping servings of violence, mayhem and disrespect.

A mountain of research shows that these media stories influence our attitudes, values, and behaviors – for better and for worse. That is why we need to pay close attention to the screens in children’s lives. Over 50 years of research tell us that research shows that exposure to media violence is linked to desensitization, fear and anxiety, and aggressive behavior. Scientifically speaking, the notion that media violence harms kids is an open and shut case. Check out this policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics that reviews the research and recommends no screen time for children under 2 years of age.

It is hard to imagine that pre-verbal and toddling children pick up on the stories transmitted by glowing screens. Even if your child doesn’t understand the plot or identify with the characters, they may be impacted by the feelings of anxiety that the images and music provoke in them and in their caregivers. Young children’s brains are also not equipped to easily distinguish fantasy from reality – and consistent exposure to violent media may actually skew their expectations of human behavior towards aggression or violence.

It’s important to note that not that every child who sees their brothers play Grand Theft Auto is doomed to a life of violence. This is obviously not the case. The real impact is much more subtle. In my opinion, the worst effect of ultra violent, sexually exploitative media is the culture of disrespect they create. Whoever tells the stories defines the culture. What do we think the effect is when our kids’ storytellers are violence simulators that glorify conflict, celebrate brutality, extol crudeness and trivialize violence toward women? The storytellers have redefined how we’re supposed to treat one another.  We’ve gone from “have a nice day,” to “make my day.”  Our kids have not missed the lesson.

Check out these tips on ways to minimize the impact of violent media on children.

Thanks, Erin Walsh