Maria Maloney has been a child and family therapist for 15 years, so she sees firsthand the impact of media messages on children.
Some say parents shouldn’t need such formal training to avoid plunking kids in front of R-rated movies, but many do anyway.
“Young kids are getting exposure to material they are not emotionally prepared to handle,” said Maloney, clinical director of Child and Adolescent Services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital. “We see a lot of kids watching horror movies or sexually explicit movies that their parents have on, and the parents don’t understand that they’re absorbing that information.
“We’ve had children come into our program who are acting out in sexualized ways, and people are concerned they’ve been sexually abused, when they’ve just been watching explicit movies or videos.”
Much of the problem, Maloney said, is plain old ignorance; parents often let preschool children sit in front of questionable content thinking they’re too young for the material to register. “But they are paying attention.”
The question — and it’s one that’s been asked for decades — is how kids’ attention to violent or otherwise adult-oriented media messages is affecting them psychologically, socially, and developmentally. While there are no easy answers, Maloney believes many parents wouldn’t allow their kids such exposure if they fully understood what’s going on in their minds.
“I don’t think people intend to hurt their kids in this way,” Maloney said. “They want to do the right thing, but they don’t realize how certain things can be so upsetting and stressful — and also give kids messages that are inconsistent with their parents’ values.”
This month, The Healthcare News examines the ways in which children might be affected by questionable entertainment — especially violence — and why the issue might be more relevant today than ever before.
Jeff Kassis, clinical director at River Valley Counseling, said media violence can certainly contribute to aggression in young people, but in most cases, it’s one of multiple negative influences.
“We’re seeing a cluster of what we call life circumstances that don’t bode well for kids, and their exposure to media violence is just one piece,” he said. “We have kids that, because they live in tough communities, their parents frequently don’t want them out playing. We have kids hearing about or witnessing violence in their own communities. Combine that with the violence they’re seeing on TV or in video games, and it’s a scary combination.”
And if kids are witnessing violence close to home, violence in the media can reinforce the desensitizing quality that many psychologists attribute to long-term exposure to violence, Kassis said. “Imagine living in a community and hearing gunshots going off at random times. Kids in a sense dissociate from the feeling of what it would like to hurt somebody, and that gets kind of scary. You have the concern that kids could participate in violence and lose their empathy.”
Empathy, he explained, is one of the key variables in limiting the impulses that people have when they feel the urge to hurt somebody. “It puts us in someone else’s shoes and stops us. If kids lose their sense of empathy, that’s a big concern.”
Lack of empathy, in fact, is cited as a factor in much bullying — a school-age issue that has received much attention over the past decade, since the high-profile school shootings in Littleton, Colo., perpetrated by two boys who identified themselves as social outcasts.
Kids have been bullying for a long time, Kassis said, but the availability of weapons seems to be higher today, and that ‘Columbine effect’ is worrisome as well. “A kid who has been bullied, marginalized, and disconnected could wind up hurting somebody,” he said. “They have no vehicle to express their feelings and work it through.”
This is an especially serious problem today, as young people isolate themselves with video games and computers at a level that previous generations would have found odd.
“There are certain developmental skills that can only be developed in communities, through playing,” Kassis said. “I remember playing football behind the creek with my friends, two or three hours at a time. There was bullying, but we had the opportunity to sort it out.”
The Internet and video games pose new issues for psychologists, for multiple reasons. Sure, kids have been playing computer games for more than 30 years, but today’s games — featuring hyper-realistic animation and increased levels of violence — are a different breed. The fact that many of them are played interactively over the Web lends a new degree of immersion, the effect of which psychologists are still trying to sort out.
“TVs and computers in the bedroom allow kids to get sucked into these things,” Maloney said. “I know kids and families are playing together with the Wii system, but when you talk about things like Grand Theft Auto, you’re getting into some dangerous things and touching on that unreality: I’m shooting people and nothing happens to me, so what does that mean?”
Cause and Effect
What, indeed? A recent study on media violence and its correlation to aggressive behavior at school, conducted by researchers with Brigham Young University, St. Mary’s University, and the National Institute on Media and the Family, surveyed children about their media exposure and their teachers about their behavior, distinguishing between physical aggression and ‘relational aggression,’ which includes peer exclusion, rumor-spreading, and other relationship-oriented ‘attacks.’
The findings revealed that children who watched more television and played video games more often were more likely to view violence and exhibit hostile behavior. And relationally aggressive children were found to view and play more violent media than their non-aggressive peers.
“This provides a persuasive case for the idea that violent media does not only contribute to physical aggression, but that it is possible that subtleties in media character relationships demonstrate other ways that individuals hurt one another,” the study authors noted. They suggest that children who indulge in relational aggression perceive it as more subtle and easier to perpetrate without significant repercussions from parents or teachers.
Hostile behavior was associated in the study with heavy exposure to violent media, making a case that children who engage in violent media viewing and play tend to assume the worst in their interactions with others.
However, the authors pointed out several limitations in their study. For one thing, children’s ratings of the violence in their favorite media were subjective, and it is possible that children who view violence more frequently might report it as being less violent, having been desensitized to its content over time. Conversely, children who view violence infrequently might inflate their reports of the violence they do observe.
Also, “perhaps those spending more time engaged in these media forms have less parent supervision of their activities and viewing material, and the children are left to their own devices. Secondarily, perhaps these children are inadvertently exposed to television violence, due to the sheer number of hours they report spending with these media forms.”
And unattended hours in front of the TV, Maloney said, often speaks to other issues, such as inattentive parenting, that contribute to delinquency in many children.
“Any situation where kids are isolating themselves for long periods of time isn’t good,” she said. “Some families have a TV in every room and everyone is separated, and that’s not a good thing, especially with all the overscheduling that kids go through. What’s wrong with a board game?”
The survey, not surprisingly, found that boys are exposed to — and prefer — more violent media than girls do. The reasons might include socialization differences; the toys, games, and even subtle messages boys and girls receive guide their behavior and what they expect of themselves.
Still, Kassis said that paradigm is starting to shift, and that girls are acting out more violently than they used to. “We’re seeing a lot more violence with girls, much more aggressive expressions of anger with that population.”
One thing seems certain: these are issues that have been around for many years, and will be debated for a long time to come. What complicates matters is that there are few hard-and-fast rules for all children, Maloney said; parents need to have a realistic grasp on what their children can handle, and not just use the TV or computer indiscriminately as a babysitter.
For instance, many teenagers, even younger ones, have the maturity to watch certain R-rated movies; Maloney cited several adult-oriented films that deal with the issue of racism while portraying violence on the screen, including Glory and Amistad. The key, she said, is parents watching with their children and being available afterward to answer questions and help sort out feelings — in other words, to give them the emotional outlet they’re not getting when they isolate themselves with the TV or computer.
Of course, parents staying involved in their children’s lives doesn’t mean just keeping tabs on what they’re into; it’s making tough decisions when those influences aren’t so healthy.
“Kids don’t need you to be their friend,” Maloney said. “Kids have their own friends. They need you to keep them safe, to know what’s appropriate and to help them make the right choices.”
Today, with the media encompassing so much more than TV, that advice seems as important as ever.