Today’s children are exposed to more media than ever before. In fact, the average kid spends 8 to 10 hours a day in front of a screen: watching movies, checking Facebook profiles, and downloading music. So just how are all these screens affecting child development and behavioral norms? And are all types of media created equal, or do some — like Sesame Street — have a positive effect on development while others — like Call of Duty — do damage?
Framing the Debate
These questions are not new. After the school shooting at Columbine, some researchers speculated that violent video games sparked the incident. And after the tragedy in Newtown, CT, many parents chose not to give violent video games as holiday presents. How media affects children remains a pertinent question — and the answer is still unclear.
“[It] is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, [a violent video game] habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape, or assault, much less a Newtown-like massacre,” science reporter Benedict Carey wrote in a recent New York Times article.
Dr. Michael Rich, co-founder of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital, agrees, saying it's impossible to predict which kids will be negatively affected by violent media.
“There are some people who can play violent video games and show no difference in a whole variety of psychological tests,” he says. “And there are other people who show increases in their hostility rates, increases in their likelihood of throwing a punch earlier in an altercation, and increases in their anxiety and fear … The problem is that we don’t know who is going to be affected before they’re affected.”
Asking New Questions
While he acknowledges that video games may increase violent behavior in some children, Rich argues that aggression shouldn't be our principle concern. Instead of focusing on whether exposure to violent media causes hostility — which Rich says is extremely rare — we should be worried about desensitization. After playing violent video games or seeing a few horror films, Rich says, most children report increased comfort with on-screen violence.
Instead of considering video games and other media good or bad, Rich says, we should view them holistically, as a part of the world our children live in. “Just like we take into the equation what we are feeding our child when we take them to a drive-in food place,” he explains. “That’s not to say never ever give them junk food. It’s more to say — let’s know how they are being affected by that.”
Lastly, Rich encourages us to have a little faith. He gives the example of “sexting,” or sending explicit text messages. Not too long ago, there was a cultural panic about the rise of sexting among tweens and teens — it seemed every child had either sent or received an inappropriate message. But now, Rich says, sexting is on the decline.
“They’ve learned that it hurts and it gets them in trouble,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that all kids aren’t doing it. But what it does mean is that the kids who are concerned about building their society, taking care of themselves and each other, are learning not to do things.”