VIDEO VIOLENCE IS COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU
Video games may be hazardous to your child’s emotional health.
Sounds like a warning on a cigarette pack, and justifiably so. Once upon a time TV was blamed on a variety of children’s emotional disturbances, from obesity to aggression. Just as parents learned to tame the TV, along came another electronic influence that can undermine a child’s success far more than television. Here’s why:
Video games are becoming the second largest segment of the entertainment industry, second to television. Around half of all children have a video game player or a computer on which to play the games in their own bedrooms. A study comparing parental rules for television viewing and playing video games showed that parents set rules for video games only half as much as they do for TV viewing, and the majority of parents did not restrict the type of games their children played. Eighty percent of the most popular video games feature aggressiveness or violence as the primary themes, and in twenty percent of these games the aggressiveness or violence is directed toward women. Surveys conclude that on a typical day, one in four American boys plays an extremely violent video game. And, the sales of extremely violent games are climbing. By the time typical American children reach the age of eighteen, they have seen 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders on some sort of screen.
Many, many studies have shown a definite correlation between the degree of violence in video-game viewing and the degree of aggressive behavior in the viewing children. In his book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (Crown Publishers, New York, 1999) Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a psychologist at Arkansas State University and past specialist as a “killologist,” points out that willingness to kill another person is not a natural behavior, but one that has to be taught by repeated desensitization and exposure to violence. He goes on to reveal that part of teaching soldiers to kill demands a conditioned response so that shooting a gun becomes automatic. According to Colonel Grossman, the Marine Corp uses modified versions of grossly violent video games (like the ones that allegedly motivated the Columbine carnage) to teach recruits how to kill. These are used to develop the “will to kill” by repeatedly rehearsing the act until it feels natural. Obviously, this technology is much more dangerous in the hands of kids than among soldiers and police. Grossman refers to violent video games as “murder simulators.”
Consider the following ways that unmonitored video-game playing can interfere with your child’s success in life:
Children are not born violent, they are made violent. They become conditioned to associate violence with fun, as part of “normal life.” Are we bringing up a generation of soldiers, or are we bringing up children? The end result of unmonitored video violence is we are training an army of kids. There is a psychological and physiological principle called “operant conditioning,” which is a stimulus-response training where a person is conditioned to act, not think, in a stressful situation. This is how pilots train in flight simulators and the United States Army trains its soldiers. Could the video game addict become conditioned to shoot or hit whenever provoked? Could these video games trigger what we call “instant replay,” so that the player is conditioned to pull a trigger when seeing someone go after his girlfriend? We are concerned that this terrifying technology can fill a child’s vulnerable and receptive brain with a whole library of scary instant replays, so that by reflex he replays one of these violent scenes when faced with a real-life problem.
Kids becoming increasingly attracted to violence and numb to its consequences. They build up an immunity to violence and therefore need higher levels of violence as “booster shots.” Since violence is actually unnatural for children, video games make it fun for them, which gradually conditions the child to believe that violence is natural. Colonel Grossman dubs this as AVIDS – acquired violence immune deficiency syndrome. As violence goes on to desensitize children, they perceive violence as “cool.” At a very young age, children learn to associate violence with pleasure and excitement, a dangerous association for a civilized society. As the desensitization process continues, parents should be aware of disturbing words, such as “It’s just a game,” or the most concerning, “It doesn’t bother me.” It should bother them.
Children instinctively copy adult behavior, and violent imagery is much more easily stored in the memory than less violent behavior. Yet, many preteen children have not yet learned to completely differentiate fantasy from reality. They view, interact and get involved with the video game, yet developmentally lack the moral judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of the action. They lack discernment. Violent screens put the wrong messages into children’s vulnerable brains at the wrong time.
The “hype hormones” that are aroused by violent video games cause children to suffer serious consequences, such as nightmares, stomachaches, headaches, anorexia, and fatigue. Some studies have even related seizure activity to violent screen time. Violent video games have been found to stress the cardiovascular system, such as increasing blood pressure and rapid breathing characteristic of a physiologic stress response. One study even reported an increase in the stress hormone adrenaline during video playing. A 1998 study showed that while playing video games children experience a high release of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, which could be called the hype hormone.
During TV watching children are just passive viewers of screen violence, yet with video games they can interact. With the push of a button or click of a mouse they can point and shoot, kill, and squash – and they get more points for more killing. Video arcades are even worse. There is no parental monitoring and the joysticks are more like guns, enabling children to point-and-shoot. In some violent programs on TV at least the bad consequences of violence are often pointed out, and the bad guy often loses. On the contrary, with video games the bad guy often wins, or at least gets to a “higher level.” In fact, the violent characters are often more glamorized in video games than on television. With TV watching, many little brains just tune out, yet with video games teens often tune up. Instead of watching killings, the player can kill.
Over sixty percent of children report that they play video games longer than they had intended to play. Once they get engrossed in a game, they get hooked on the hype and want to play longer. The games fit into the natural desire for children to get control over their lives, and video games give children a feeling of mastery that they may not have over other aspects of their lives. Playing violent video games is like a drug. Once the child reaches a certain level of violence and becomes bored – what is known physiologically as habituated – the child needs more of the “drug” to maintain the high level of excitement.
The most disturbing fact is that children who have the least amount of self-esteem and mastery over their life are the ones most attracted to video games. According to Dr. Jane Healy in her book Endangered Minds, boys who pursue violent video games are more likely to have low self-confidence in school and be less successful in personal relationships. Studies have also shown that for girls increased time playing video or computer games is associated with lowered self-esteem. These games give children an out when they don’t feel in with other groups.
Role-playing games (RPG’s) allow children to play the role of violent characters. The roles of these characters become more attractive to the children, especially if they don’t like their roles in the world they live in. Children learn that violent characters are cool, powerful, and in some misguided way, successful. During video-playing, children get instant gratification and can manipulate their roles to what they want. Yet, in the real world, they have to wait, and it’s not always fun.
It’s the nature of a growing child to view the world as a kind and safe place to live. Violent video games distort a child’s perception of the real world as violent and fearful. Media researchers fear that children will grow up viewing the world as violent and dangerous – a viewpoint dubbed the mean world syndrome.
Many pediatricians rank screen violence as a public health issue at the same level as smoking and cancer. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors to take a “media history” during annual check-ups on school-age children. Here is one graphic example. Scary technology now allows players to “morph” headshots of other people (such as other kids or teachers whom they might hate) onto the bodies of the characters in the video game in order to shoot their heads off.
Just as you take preventive measures against your child getting involved in alcohol or drugs, take steps to monitor your child’s exposure to video games, for which children don’t even need an I.D. Try these suggestions:
- Just say “no.” Develop a list of no-nos: no TV or video-game playing in the bedroom, no violent video games, and no unmonitored video arcades.
- Offer less violent alternatives. The more involved your child is in sports, arts, and social groups, the less he will need video games. Discover your child’s special talent – that special something that every child has, and nurture it. Give him opportunities to build his self-esteem away from the screen.
- Monitor the screen. Like you would preview a TV program or movie, watch it with your child and discuss the violent parts, and why video violence is harmful to your child. As one mother in our practice said to her child: “I refuse to let you grow up to be a jerk.” Her child got the point. Talk about how the game makes your child feel. Above all, don’t let your children become desensitized to what they watch. If they say it doesn’t bother them, simply say, “Well, it should.”
- Rent rather than buy video games. This allows you to preview them before you’ve made a financial commitment. Preview the entire game, since in many games violence increases towards the end of the game or once your child reaches higher levels. Walk and talk your child through the entire game.
- Create a screen budget. Allow your child a certain amount of screen time weekly, say an hour a day, and enforce it.
- Evaluate the ratings – carefully. Don’t let your guard down because of the ratings. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates video games according to “EC” (early childhood), “E” (everyone), “T” (teens), “M” (mature), and “adults only,” which are not intended to be rented or sold to any person younger than eighteen years. Also, coin-operated video games now label videos. A green label suggests the game is suitable for all ages. Yellow or red labels signal the video may contain violence, sexual content, or bad language. While these ratings are a start, preview the “E” or “ALL” ratings anyway, since the level of violence the raters consider harmless may not be acceptable in your home. For more information about video-game ratings, consult: www.esrb.org; or order a discussion of the ratings by the American Academy of Pediatrics at: www.aap.org/family/ratingsgame.htm
- Encourage group games. Encourage your children to play video games that involve more than one person, so that at least they learn some social interaction. And, of course, choose games that are less violent.
Allowing violent video games in your home could be considered as a form of child abuse. In fact, it’s visual abuse. The best medicine to prevent your child from becoming addicted to violent video games is to immunize him against such violence so that your child remains “bothered” by violence. The best way to do this is to practice attachment parenting. Technology is taking over the home. Video games are here to stay and parents can’t always stop this techno-race. The best we can do is provide speed bumps and restful pit stops to slow it down. There is a bright side to technology that parents should allow and a dark side to technology that we must stop.