What happens to children when they are exposed to interpersonal violence? They take it in and it becomes a part of them. Over longer periods of time, that can lead to a change in their personality and even decreased brain function. How does this happen?
The average American child will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. Kids who view violent acts on TV are more likely to show aggressive behavior, and to fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.
Watch the nightly news on television and it takes mere seconds to see some violent act or acts that occurred that day. For adults, watching that violence daily impacts their mental wellbeing too but for children, it takes much less time and creates a greater impact on their developing brains.
Children are exposed to interpersonal violence that can range from being bullied on the playground at school to hearing their parents argue about their divorce. If that exposure happens only once, most children can brush it off with their resilience. However, when it happens daily over weeks or months, it begins to take a significant toll on them.
Although experts agree that no single factor can cause a nonviolent person to act aggressively, heavy exposure to violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior. Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors, including aggression and conflict at home, are the most likely to behave aggressively.
What can parents do about it?
While there are many benefits to media and technology, including the potential to teach valuable skills, parents should research TV shows, movies, or games before kids watch, play, and interact with them to minimize exposure to extreme violence.
Check out ratings, and, when there are none, find out about content. For example, content in a 1992 R-rated movie is now acceptable for a PG-13. Streaming online videos aren’t rated and can showcase very brutal content.
When possible, watch the shows together and discuss the content in meaningful ways. Also emphasize that these movies and TV shows are fiction and made for entertainment only.
Limit your child’s exposure to media. Playing a few video games for 30 minutes a day will not increase your child’s aggressive behavior, but every child is different. Make sure the time limits fit with your child’s age and developmental stage.
Here is some general advice by ages:
Two- to 4-year-old kids often see cartoon violence. But keep them away from anything that shows physical aggression as a means of conflict resolution, because they will imitate what they see.
For 5- to 7-year-olds, cartoon rough-and-tumble, slapstick, and fantasy violence are OK, but violence that could result in death or serious injury is too scary.
Eight- to 10-year-olds can handle action-hero sword fighting or gunplay so long as there’s no gore.
For 11- to 12-year-olds, historical action — battles, fantasy clashes, and duels — is OK. But closeups of gore or graphic violence (alone or combined with sexual situations or racial stereotypes) aren’t recommended.
Kids age 13 to 17 can and will see shootouts, blowups, high-tech violence, accidents with disfigurement or death, anger, and gang fighting. Point out that the violence portrayed hurts and causes suffering.
Most M-rated games aren’t right for kids under 17. The ultra-violent behavior, often combined with sexual images, affects developing brains.
By setting healthy limits on screen time and knowing what your child is watching and playing, you can help make the most of your child’s media use.