Video Violence: Kids See, Kids Do

Studies Track the Negative Effects of Media Exposure

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NEW YORK, DEC. 10, 2005 ( For the young and not-so-young who expect to receive new video games this Christmas, ’tis the season for a rising concern: problems of exposure to excessive violence in the media.

These concerns will likely be augmented by the new Xbox 360 video-game console, the New York Times reported Dec. 4. The new console has improved graphics and video capacity, allowing even more vivid depictions. The video-games business is now a $10 billion industry, the newspaper noted, with more being spent on consoles and games than on movies.

And the games themselves are becoming more violent. An annual report issued by the National Institute on Media and the Family noted that some video games now feature graphic scenes of cannibalism, the Associated Press reported Nov. 30.

“It’s something we’ve never seen before,” said institute president David Walsh. He warned that today’s games are more extreme and more easily available to underage children than ever before.

A secret shopper survey carried out by the institute also found that 44% of child buyers were able to buy M-rated games with sexual and violent content intended only for those aged 17 and over.

Most studies done on violence and video games support the argument that there is a link between aggressive behavior in children and violent games, according to the American Psychological Association. An APA press release published Aug. 17 announced that it adopted a resolution recommending that violence be reduced in video games marketed to children and youth. The APA also encouraged parents and educators to help young people make more informed choices about which games to play.

The decision by the APA Council of Representatives was adopted at the recommendation of the association’s special Committee on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media of the Media Psychology Division. The committee reviewed the research indicating that exposure to violence in video games increases aggression in thoughts, behavior and feelings.

Intensive learning

The APA committee’s study showed that the perpetrators of violence in the games go unpunished 73% of the time. “Showing violent acts without consequences teach youth that violence is an effective means of resolving conflict, whereas seeing pain and suffering as a consequence can inhibit aggressive behavior,” said psychologist Elizabeth Carll, co-chair of the committee.

Violence in video games is more of a problem than in other forms of media, due to its interactive nature. “Playing video games involves practice, repetition and being rewarded for numerous acts of violence, which may intensify the learning,” explained Carll.

Another committee member, Dorothy Singer, a senior research scientist at Yale University and co-director of the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center, said that children need to be taught how to view television critically. Such instruction would help youngsters to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and to identify less with aggressive characters, she said.

The APA’s concerns were reinforced by a new study carried out by Michigan State University. Researchers monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they played violent games, according to an Oct. 16 report in the British newspaper Telegraph.

One of those involved in the study, René Weber, explained that there was a link between playing a first-person shooting game and brain activity that was considered characteristic of aggressive cognitions.

“Violent video games frequently have been criticized for enhancing aggressive reactions such as aggressive cognitions, aggressive affects or aggressive behavior,” Weber noted. “On a neurobiological level we have shown the link exists.”

Sex content

Another perennial concern regarding the media is its level of sexual content. Researchers at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than three-quarters of prime-time TV shows contain some sexual material, the Washington Times reported Nov. 10.

The study commented that, unlike violence, the impact of pervasive sexual messages on youths has not been studied in depth. One study, however, carried out in 2004 by RAND Corporation, found that high exposure to TV sex may hasten the start of sexual activity among teens. It also found that teens were just as affected by TV “sex talk” as by the actual depiction of sex scenes.

U.S. government authorities, meanwhile, seem to be taking a more relaxed view toward indecency in the media, the Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 16. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied a record $7.9 million in indecency-related fines last year. This led to programming changes by some TV and radio channels.

This year, however, the FCC has received, through September, more than 189,000 indecency complaints against radio and television programs, but so far it hasn’t issued any fines.

The number of complaints is below last year’s level, but the number of shows drawing complaints has soared. By June, more than 500 television and radio shows had drawn complaints, compared with the 314 shows that drew complaints for all of 2004.

More in less time

The sheer quantity of time spent by children and adolescents in media activity also raises worries. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that youths are using more than one media source at a time and packing 8 1/2 hours of media content into just under 6 1/2 hours each day, the Chicago Tribune reported March 10.

The 8 1/2 hours do not include exposure at school and are up an hour from five years ago, with the biggest increase coming from video games (now at 49 minutes a day) and computer use (slightly more than an hour).

The study also found that two-thirds of children’s bedrooms have a television. Another 54% have a videocassette recorder or DVD players in their rooms, up from 36% five years ago. And 37% have cable or satellite television. Outside the bedroom, nearly two-thirds of the children surveyed said the television is usually on during meals.

Another study, carried out by researchers at Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities, found that children who watch a lot of television and have a set in their bedroom do significantly worse at school. The study, along with another carried out in New Zealand and one from the University of Washington in Seattle, were published in July in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

A report on the studies, in the London-based Times on July 5, noted that all three found that excessive use of television impaired academic results. Thomas Robinson, of the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, said: “This study provides even more evidence that parents should take the television out of their child’s room, or not put it there in the first place.”

Concerns over the impact of media usage on children have led some unlikely figures to favor restraint, the Sunday Times reported Oct. 16. “Television is poison,” said one mother, whose children are banned from watching it, apart from one video on Sundays. This rule was set by none other than pop star Madonna. Advice that parents might heed as they decide what to give their children this Christmas.

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