Something to Watch For Parents Must Monitor What Their Children See and Hear

Does violence beget violence?
That’s the age-old question.
There have been numerous research studies over the years that have concluded that significant exposure to media violence — found in movies, video games, and on television news — is correlated with increased risk of aggressive behavior in some children and adolescents.
One of the latest of these studies, published in November 2013 in the journal Pediatrics, titled “Gun Violence Trends in Movies,” noted that violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and the presence of gun violence in PG-13-rated films has more than tripled since the rating was introduced in 1985. But it’s not just about picking up a gun. Researchers conclude that, because of the increase in popularity of PG-13 movies, children — and adults — are exposed to considerable gun use and violence, which may, under certain circumstances, increase their aggressive tendencies.
These aggressive behaviors may manifest in a number of ways, from outwardly physical violence, such as fighting and the use of guns or other weapons, to threatening to hurt someone, to the destruction of property. And it’s not just physical violence. Harmful words used in bullying, for example, can injure someone, too.
As clinicians, we see kids who act out aggressively who we know have also played aggressively violent video games. Do these violent games play a role in contributing to their aggression? That’s not easy to determine.
The truth of the matter is that there are often multiple factors — not just violence in video games and movies — that increase the risk of violent behavior in children and adolescents. Some of these factors have to do with an individual’s own temperament, one’s overall health and emotional state, as well as their immediate environment, including exposure to violence in the home, socializing with a delinquent peer group, or being the victim of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
Should parents be concerned about violence in movies, video games, and other media? Yes. Although exposure to violent media content does not necessarily mean that a child will act aggressively, it is one of several risk factors. So, when it comes to the mental health and behavior of our children, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
It’s important that parents become knowledgeable about and vigilant regarding the violence their children are being exposed to. They should be aware of the content of the movies they are seeing and read warnings concerning the content of the video games they want to purchase. While some question the validity of the movie and video-game rating systems, there is some logic behind them in attempting to help parents make decisions. But parents must also keep in mind that a rating of PG-13 today is much different in levels of sex and violence in a movie from the PG-13 ratings of the past.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting media time to two hours per day for most children and adolescents. A young child is going to be more vulnerable to acts of violence portrayed on the screen compared to those children who are a lot older and mature. If kids are exposed to a lot of violence early on in their lives, they can become desensitized to it.
Exposure to violent media can also convey a message to children that the world is an unsafe and scary place. While older children are able to separate fantasy from real life much easier, younger kids — and some older ones — may have more difficulty sorting out violence. They may come to believe that resorting to violence to resolve conflicts is the norm and follow that pattern on their own. And there are some kids with less-well-developed personalities and strengths who will lose themselves in the violence of games and movies and find it quite intriguing, although this is very, very rare.
By restricting the amount of graphic violence in movies and video games that kids are exposed to at a younger age, parents will have hopefully set a good example for them to follow when they become more independent in making their own decisions and choosing what games to play or movies to see. Of course, parents can try their best to restrict access in their homes, only to learn that their children have been playing these first-person shooter games at a friend’s house.
Additionally, the AAP urges pediatricians to recommend to parents to avoid television- and video-viewing for children younger than 2 years of age. They are also asking pediatricians during well-child visits to discuss the following areas with parents:
Encouraging a careful selection of programs to view;
Co-viewing and discussing content with children and adolescents;
Teaching critical viewing skills;
Limiting and focusing time spent with media. Parents of young children and preteens should avoid exposing them to movies rated PG-13 and R;
Being good media role models, as children often develop their media habits on the basis of their parents’ behavior;
Emphasizing alternative activities;
Creating an electronic-media-free environment in children’s rooms; and
Avoiding the use of media as an electronic babysitter.
If a child has frequent bouts of anger, shows signs of extreme irritability and is easily frustrated, or displays a constant disregard for authority, parents should consider having him or her evaluated by a behavioral-health specialist.
An evaluation by a specialist should be able to determine whether the child’s emotional issues or behavioral problems warrant further treatment. There are effective treatments that can help children and adolescents struggling with aggressive behavioral tendencies or emotional outbursts. Early intervention with children at risk can reduce the likelihood that problems will get worse or cause the child more severe problems as they get older.
To make an appointment with a pediatric behavioral-health specialist, call Baystate Central Intake for Child Behavioral Health Services at (413) 794-5555. v
Dr. Bruce Waslick is a psychiatrist at Baystate Behavioral Health who specializes in child psychiatry. Dr. Peter Thunfors is a child psychologist at Baystate Behavioral Health who specializes in child psychiatry.

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