Protecting children from the dangers of “virtual violence”

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. 

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

There has been a lot of violence in the world in the past few weeks — and many of our children have been watching it.

That’s not a good thing.

Between mainstream media and social media, violence reaches far past the places and people it directly affects. Whether it’s the latest shooting, the latest terrorist attack, or some other act of violence, television and other media can bring it into every home, every cell phone, and every computer. The recent rise in cell phone videos shared on social media — often raw, unedited, and shocking violence — has increased the prevalence and reach of violence even further.

Add to that the violence in movies — even G-rated movies — and video games and, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said in their policy statement entitled Virtual Violence, “Media violence is woven into the fabric of American children’s lives.”

The last comprehensive assessment of “screen” violence was done in 1998, and it found that the typical child will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence (including rape and assault) before middle school. That was 18 years ago, 7 years before YouTube began and 9 years before the first iPhone was released. Just think what those numbers are now.

The AAP released the policy statement because they want people to understand that exposure to “virtual” violence, through news, social and entertainment media, can be bad for children. Multiple studies have shown that children exposed to violence may be more aggressive, and they may have behavioral problems. They may also become desensitized to violence, which may be the worst outcome — imagine a generation of children growing up thinking that violence is acceptable and unremarkable.

Every person is different; some are likely to be more affected by others. But as the policy statement points out, given how wide the exposure is, even just a small percentage can end up being a big effect. The example they give:

It’s attention and action that the pediatricians most want. Here are some of their suggestions regarding “virtual violence”:

  • Pediatricians and parents should think about the “media diet” of children. What children watch on screens is just as important — if not more important — than how much time they spend in front of screens.
  • Parents need to be mindful of what their children see and what games they play. To the extent that it’s possible, parents should try to watch and play with their children. With older children, especially those with computers and smart phones, it’s important to talk about what they are seeing and doing.
  • Parents need to be mindful of their own media habits. They should not only set a good example, but also be careful of what they watch when their children are nearby.
  • Parents need to understand that children, especially young children, can’t always distinguish between fantasy and reality. “It’s just a movie” may not do the trick. Children under 6 shouldn’t be exposed to virtual violence at all.
  • “First person shooter” games, in which killing is the central theme and the goal, are not appropriate for children of any age.
  • Federal, state, and local legislators should work to provide parents and caregivers more, and more reliable, information about how much violence is in all different kinds of media
  • The entertainment industry (and news industry) should be more responsible about how it portrays violence. It should limit gratuitous violence and glamorization of violence, and when violence is portrayed, the pain and loss suffered should be portrayed as well.

This isn’t about making our media free of violence. It’s about being aware of the effect that violence can have on our children and doing everything we can to make that effect as small as possible. Because nothing — no news update, no popular movie, or any video game — will ever be as important as our children.

Commenting has been closed for this post.