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Why some kids seem immune from the bad effects of television violence and violent video games

February 12, 2007

Whether it’s murder, robbery or just plain daredevilry, instances of children and teens committing acts of violence are increasing…and study after study demonstrates that violent programmes on TV influence people to behave in a more aggressive way. And its not just television and the movies. Violent video games and toys too have a bad effect. Says Dr. Harish Shetty, social psychiatrist:

‘American studies have shown that violent programming on television as well as violent video games increase the subject’s aggressive tendencies towards siblings and the peer group.’

Video Games are as bad at television
Violent video games are as bad as television, if not worse, as they are interactive. The popular video game called ‘Doom’ advertises it’s new avatar thus: ‘Only this time, you won’t just have a pistol, knife and a couple of machine guns, but much more powerful weapons like a rocket launcher, shotgun, and even a chainsaw if you’re a blood-thirsty opponent.’ Another game, Warcraft, is replete with evil characters and the player has to assume the role of one of the characters. Toy sections are teeming with soldier figures, all holding either guns, axes or spears. There are a plethora of imitation air guns, sten guns and revolvers. The protagonist of a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ set is a mean looking Pirate ready to mow down everyone in his path with his axe.
Why some kids don’t seem affected
Well, the child’s real life environment matters. They emerge apparently unscathed from all this harmful game playing and television watching. Says Dr. H. Shetty:

‘TV, movies and video games are not standalone causes. The child’s physical environment is very important.

The exposure the child has to real life violence, whether verbal or physical is a deciding factor. Ameeta Sanghavi Shah, psychotherapist, explains this:

‘If the child is in a situation where the parents are very dominating and he is made to feel powerless, then he will search for symbols of power.’

These symbols could well be fast cars, motorcycles stunts, violent video games or simply violent toys. Anything which give the person a feeling of control:

It’s the same with watching violence on television…adolescents who feel helpless easily identify with the aggressor specially as he is the winner.

Thus children and teens who grow up in an abusive environment might even seek out violent games and violent programmes…and then it becomes difficult to evaluate what came first…the violence ingrained in the child by his parents or by the TV. It becomes a vicious cycle difficult to break. The hero in fact cannot win unless he is as violent as the villain. Dr. Rajesh Parikh, neuro-psychiatrist says:

In artificial situations such as movies or video games, violent solutions are convenient, quicker and more dramatic…but unfortunately children start to see violence as a solution to problems.

The child’s inner psyche
How badly the child is affected also depends on his innate personality. Dr Shamsah Sonawalla, psychiatrist, explains:

A timid or sensitive child is more likely to get influenced by violent imagery

Repeated exposure to violence can cause deep changes in the child’s personality. He can stop reacting to violence. As Dr. Parikh explains:

This is called ‘Desensitization’ and it occurs if a child experiences or observes violence regularly.

Victims of real life violence can also become desensitized to their own pain, thus making it extremely difficult for them to be sensitive to another’s.

Many violent criminals have been victims of violence as children.

Another reason why desensitization occurs is because often the consequences of violence are not shown. In the Home Alone series for example (supposedly children’s movies) violence is shown lightly, and in a humorous way. Shah says:

Home Alone is a classic case of a movie which can desensitize you to violence and very young kids are easily sucked into the make-believe world. Young children find it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and real life. Additionally here the violence is shown in a humourous way and the effects of the violence on the people is not shown

Children find it difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy
Studies have shown that kids up till the age of five or six have a difficulty in differentiating the real from the fantastical. It is only by the age of seven that children started to develop the ability to differentiate. However, while nine year olds might be aware that dinosaurs don’t really exist, they tend to over-estimate their ability when it comes to imitating the ‘heroic’ actions of their favorite stars.
When Mahabharata was being shown on television, hundreds of children started playing with bows and arrows, and as a result there were some who lost their eyesight. Even adolescents can fall victim to the fantasy of celluloid. Why, just last month two youths in Mumbai tried to copy a motorcycle stunt they had seen in Dhoom 2…but lost control and paid with their life. But why did these grown boys not understand that stunts in movies are carried out with all safety precautions and under expert supervision? Shah says:

If a teenager craves identification with these daring, seemingly heroic and brave images, he does not always see the dangers.

Adolescents the world over are vulnerable because they search for role models. As Dr. Parikh points out, ‘We are an imitative species.’
Whether it’s fashion, attitude or simply aggression, humans instinctively imitate.
Healthy relationships with adults are critical
Good relationships with adults go a long way in protecting the child from the adverse influence of violent images around them. Says Dr. H. Shetty:

Vigorous fulfilling relationships with adults help children escape the consequences. ‘A ‘feeling’ ambience at home as opposed to a religious or intellectual ambiance is required. If children are emotionally connected to siblings and parents, they are calmer.

Emotionally connected children are also far more likely to take the advice from family members. Also, parents need to set an example. A study conducted by the Centre for Advocacy and Research for UNESCO in India revealed children watched horror programmes like Aahat and X-Zone inspite of parental disapproval. Dr. Parikh feels that this happens if parents are not setting an example and ‘…finally children do not what they are told, but what they see.’ Also, empty instructions do not go down well with kids. Meaningful communication is important. Adds Dr. Parikh:

There should be regular discussions where all viewpoints are discussed. Children need to be taught to critically and objectively evaluate what they see. If it’s a television programme they need to know why they like it, why they don’t. Even when they are watching news they should understand that most news is oversimplified.

The more TV you watch the worse it gets
Studies show that the greater the exposure to violence in the environment, the more aggressive the child becomes. Advises Dr. Sonawalla:

Today kids watch apalling amounts of TV. As most children’s programmes including cartoons, depict violence, television watching has to come down. Limits need to be set and there should be TV-free days.

A genetic factor?
There is a genetic factor involved in aggressive tendencies as well, but Dr. Parikh believes that this is overrated:

Violence does tend to run in families, but let’s not base it on the genes…let’s not forget that images of violence affect children.

Man has always been violent
Man has had a violent history and unless the environment is conducive we may never become fully civilized. As Dr. H. Shetty says:

Man is by nature a violent animal. But if a child lives close to nature in an ambiance of feeling, and taught to love the environment and his neighbours, if he is linked to the larger universe, then we will have peace.

Wise words indeed.

(This article was published in The Times of India, Mumbai and photograph is by me and copyrighted)

Related Reading: Both men and women are aggressive by nature
Children get influenced by advertising of products on television
The greatest peril of modern society – Celebrity Culture
Suicide rates of the world and why people kill themselves
Rejecting others and isolating them seems to be a human trait (about the suicide of a young student)
Humans like forming ghettos

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2007 4:38 pm

    This blog raises the ever present question of media responsibility in censoring violent content. Germany took one route with its recent legislation hoping to outlaw overly aggressive video games entirely, while some countries prefer a more hands-off approach. With the extensive research conducted on the subject, to ignore the affects of this content on children would be both naive and careless. Yet still, the FCC cannot be expected to ban violence on television completely. The obligation lies once again with good parenting. Guardians are accountable for regulating a child’s media exposure, but how much do they know about the effects of television violence? Perhaps this is where media responsibility comes into play, in educating the public on these harms. Research like this should be more actively publicized. Harmful effects should be outlined in a warning before violent programming, something akin to the Surgeon General’s words on cigarettes. More needs to be done, more than just a TV14 in the corner, but without crossing into censorship.

  2. July 10, 2007 10:25 pm

    i agree people should restrict the amount of time their kids spend watching television. On a daily basis kids watch way more than they should even when they have restrictions placed on television time.

  3. July 14, 2007 9:40 pm

    This is a great article. Even though the studies show a correlation between violent TV and both short-term and long-term violent behavior, it is not a simple relationship. Not only does the content have an effect, the amount of TV a child watches can displace other healthier social interactions. These healthy interactions can offset the negative influence of the TV violence.

    Plus, kids are different, plain and simple. Some kids are more easily influenced by violence.

    Parents need to be aware of both the risks of watching violent TV in general and HOW THEIR CHILDREN RESPOND. This is information that can only be gleaned from interactions with their children, which they can’t do while they are watching TV.

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