A major effect of media violence that is rarely talked about

When we hear ‘media violence’ and ‘youth’ in the same sentence, most of us tend to worry that young people will become violent because of what they see on a screen. But there is another effect of media violence that rarely gets the attention it deserves: the fear it cultivates in us, that the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 14

Despite how the media make it seem, danger does not lurk around every corner.

All media messages are representations, and few of them reflect reality accurately. An especially dramatic example of the discrepancy between the two is related to kidnappings. If you watch enough television dramas, you see kidnappings left, right, and center. On programs like CSI and Law and Order, it seems that few children arrive home safely at the end of the day. News media, which are supposedly based in reality, dramatically over-report kidnappings and other crimes as a matter of course. Parenting magazines tend to report alarming figures such as, “every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.”

Contrast all this terror on the screen and the page with actual statistics about child abductions in the U.S. It’s true that thousands of children go missing every year, but the vast majority are taken by family members or acquaintances and are recovered quickly. According to the Department of Justice, only about 115 children and adolescents are abducted each year in ‘stereotypical kidnappings’ like those depicted on TV. This may seem like a lot, but the population of the U.S. under age 18 is about 74,300,000. That’s means there’s about a one-in-a-million chance that a child will be abducted CSI-style in a given year. The likelihood of it happening on any given day is smaller still, practically zero.

These statistics would be comforting if the media would only share them with us. Instead we’re barraged by stories and images of kidnapping, murder, and mayhem. Media researchers have known for decades that prolonged exposure to such media portrayals tend to make us believe that they depict the world accurately. It’s called ‘cultivation:’ heavy exposure to violence in media can cultivate a person’s belief that the rate of crime and violence in her neighborhood is higher than it actually is. In fact, crime in most U.S. cities is at a historic low. But the media tell us otherwise. The media make us more fearful than we should be.

So what does all this media-induced fear mean for parents and kids? Why should we care?

Fear is bad for mental health. Children’s perception of risk in their surroundings can be strongly affected by news media; one study found that children and teens who were heavy viewers of news were more worried that they might be abducted than light viewers were. The news is powerful enough, in fact, that coverage of a traumatic event can cause a viewer to experience more stress than she would witnessing the event first-hand. In a study of people who either directly witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing or watched heavy news coverage of the event, higher levels of acute stress were reported by the media users. Typical media coverage of a horrific event spins the same scary footage over and over, and can cultivate in our minds the idea that awful things are continuing to happen.

Fear is bad for physical health. In 1969, 48% of children age 5 – 14 usually walked or bicycled to school. In 2009, only 13% did (source). Today’s kids also play outside far less frequently than their parents did, and one survey of mothers revealed that 61% cited ‘lack of adult supervision and a fear of physical harm to their child’ as a primary reason for keeping their kids inside. Fear can also cause stress and anxiety which, left unchecked, can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (source). And as any parent knows, many kids absorb their parents’ emotional states easily. A fearful, anxious parent can have a fearful, anxious child.

Fear can lead to more violence. Following a mass shooting that receives heavy media coverage, gun purchases often spike. More guns in homes allow for more gun-related accidents, and CDC figures demonstrate that guns are among the top ten causes of unintentional deaths of children age 1 – 14. Fear of crime in the world outside can also cause individuals to suspect neighbors and take unwarranted action against them, as George Zimmerman did when he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Last but not least, it’s well-known among media researchers that growing up in a violent, fear-inducing environment can make children more likely to act aggressively after seeing violence portrayed in media.

As parents, we can set examples for our children by not being scared by the overdose of violence in media. We can talk with them realistically about risk: what it makes sense to be cautious about, and what the media blow out of proportion. We can teach them that news reporters don’t tell us about the thousands of flights that land without a problem every day, and the tens of millions of U.S. kids who make it home safely.

More resources:

 

‘Your Baby Can Read’ was a waste of money, research confirms

Screenshot of commercial for 'Your Baby Can Read"You might remember the best-selling DVD set, ‘Your Baby Can Read.’ The multi-volume kit came with flash cards and a picture book presumably meant to reinforce the lessons on screen. TV commercials for the product used pseudo-scientific diagrams to suggest that babies’ fast-developing brains are ripe for this kind of instruction. The company implied that infants as young as 9 months could recognize words after watching the videos and using the accompanying materials.

The makers of ‘Your Baby Can Read’ went out of business in 2012, after a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. NBC’s Today show featured an investigative report that questioned claims made about the product. In the midst of all the controversy, researchers at NYU conducted a randomized trial to see if the product lived up to its claims, and – because academic publishing moves at a snail’s pace – those results have just come out.

The study tracked 117 infants (ages 9 to 18 months) over a period of 7 months. Parents of infants in the test group used ‘Your Baby Can Read’ according to the makers’ instructions, so each infant would watch 70 hours of DVD training and receive 45 hours of interaction using the flash cards and picture books. The researchers measured the outcomes in multiple ways, and found no significant difference in developmental reading skills between the test group and the control group.

Claims implied in the TV commercials, that babies who had used the program could recognize words and respond to written directions (e.g., ‘clap your hands!’) were not supported by the study’s findings.

Did the program likely do any damage to infants? Probably not, but sitting a baby in front of a DVD for 20 minutes a day goes against recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics not to use screen media for children under age 2.

The next time you see an ‘educational’ media product making claims that seem too good to be true, remember: they probably are.

 

For one mom, previews and context are key

Annie likes her kids to know what to expect in media. And she prefers to know what they’ll encounter in advance. She screens and previews most of the content seen or heard by her 15-year-old son Eli and her 11-year-old daughter, Margaret.

NPR does not come on while they’re in the car with her, she said, because she doesn’t want them to be surprised by things they may not be prepared to hear.

Approved for Annie's 15-year-old son, but she reads it first

Approved for Annie’s 15-year-old son, but only if she reads it first

Annie said she previews in part because she knows how much inappropriate content is out there and it worries her.

“Everything concerns me about media!” Annie said.  “There’s so much access to stuff that I wouldn’t have seen until my mid-20s, and now an 8-year-old can access it.”

Annie’s family does not have cable service and they only receive two TV channels. Her kids have fairly open access to the Internet, and they’re allowed to watch shows on PBS and via Netflix, as long as Annie knows what they are.

Context is very important to her, she said, especially regarding the social situations in which her kids encounter certain media messages. When her son wanted to read Game of Thrones and see the TV series adaptation, she speed-read the first book and then stayed one book ahead of him as he read it. She then watched the TV show with him, so they could talk about some of the more mature elements in it.

“I wouldn’t have let him watch it on his own, or with a bunch of his friends,” Annie said.

She added that she tries to strike a balance between monitoring and keeping channels of communication open with him.

“Do I risk having him sneak around and read it anyway,” she said, “or do I actively participate it in with him?”

Context in the story is also important to her. She took Eli to see the movie Skyfall, and she said she was comfortable with the violent content because it was relevant within the narrative of a spy story. This standard applies to both violence and sex, she said.

“I don’t forbid my kids from seeing it, but it needs to be relevant to the storyline.”

Annie added that she thinks the amount of sexual content in the Game of Thrones books is excessive.

Her kids are also on social media. Eli uses Facebook and Reddit, and follows several blogs. Margaret uses Club Penguin, but she’s only allowed to send pre-written ‘postcards’ to other users, and she may not share personal information about herself.

Annie credits Margaret’s school for teaching kids about trust, respect, and not posting photos of themselves or others in bad situations. She is impressed with the guidance they provide, and said it boosts her confidence in her kids’ ability to manage online interactions.

She anticipates her kids becoming a bit more secretive as they get older, but she is confident that they’ll come and talk with her about issues they encounter. She occasionally glances at Eli’s laptop if he leaves it open, but she said she has never seen anything that concerns her.

“It’s a very open communication thing,” she said, “and it involves a lot of trust.”

 

Superbowl commercial bingo – a critical thinking game

SuperbowlBingo_featuredimageThis Sunday, make watching the big game a teachable moment for your kids. Encourage them to watch the commercials more closely and critically than they usually do, and to identify ways that the advertisers try to get their attention.

Download this free 4-pack of bingo cards. Each card has a unique mix of 25 squares, which are individual elements they might see in a commercial. Two examples are: “Features a celebrity” and “Makes unbelievable claims about a product.” They’re parent-approved as appropriate for kids age 10 and older.

As they watch the game, kids can draw an X over a square when they see a commercial that matches the element in it. Prizes can be given for a row and/or a ‘blackout’ when the entire card is filled in. Parents or teachers can use this game as a conversation starter to get kids talking about what they saw in the commercials. For suggestions, download the Parent/Educator Guide.

 

 

 

Reality show on teen pregnancy reduces the real thing

16-and-Pregnant_screenshotIt turns out, reality TV stars may not all be the role-models-from-hell that so many parents fear. While no one has studied the impact of Jersey Shore to my knowledge, they have looked at the effects of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. I was surprised to learn that this series – along with its Teen Mom spinoffs – may have actually reduced the rate of teen pregnancy during the time it was first broadcast.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research studied Google searches, Twitter activity, and teenage girls’ childbirth rates during the period between 2009 and 2012 when the series were first broadcast. They found that search engine activity related to the series and to birth control increased following the show’s introduction. Tweets about the series and about birth control also increased. As the researchers state, this suggests that the show “had some influence on [viewers] in a way that could potentially change their behavior.”

In addition, researchers looked at the statistics for teens giving birth, specifically for those who would have conceived during the year-and-a-half when 16 and Pregnant was first broadcast. Statistical analysis suggests that the show contributed to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births during the sample period. This accounts for approximately one-third of all the overall reduction in teen births during that time. The researchers attribute much of the rest to effects of the recession.

Why did the series make some teens think twice? Researchers examined the content and themes of the episodes, and observed that the shows depict:

  • Little use of birth control; three-quarters of the girls in the series said they were not using contraception when they became pregnant.
  • Extensive sleep deprivation.
  • Strained relationships with the father of the child; more than half of the couples were having difficulties or had broken up at the end of the episode.
  • Negative impacts on the health and well-being of the teen mother herself.

teen_mom_magazine_coverI was especially surprised by these findings, as many of my own college students have written term papers in which they theorized that such shows glamorize teen pregnancy by turning the teen moms into celebrities. But not all teens perceive the shows and their cast members this way. A survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 77 percent of teens who watch 16 and Pregnant said that it helps them “better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.” In contrast, 23 percent said it made “pregnancy and parenthood look easy and fun.”

This study demonstrates the power of the media to educate young people (for better or worse) and make them think about risks and the decisions they make every day.

 

An expert talks about effects of media violence

It’s early January, it’s frigid outside, and many kids are still home on winter break. Violent video games and movies are likely occupying the attention of some of them. This week, I picked the brain of an internationally known expert about the effects of media violence on children.

Craig_Anderson_headshotDr. Craig A. Anderson is a Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University and the Director of the Center for the Study of Violence. He is also the father of two, a boy and a girl, who are now in their twenties.

Misunderstandings about media violence

“Most people don’t think that media violence has much of an impact on aggressive behavior in general,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, among them that the press has not done a good job of conveying accurately what the research shows.”

He cites studies that show that mainstream media coverage misrepresents the research, and that the misrepresentation has become worse over the last 10 years. Reporters tend to oversimplify the problem, and counter claims that media violence directly causes violent behavior.

“Those of us who study media violence effects do not claim, and have never claimed, that media violence is the only – or even the primary – cause of aggression,” Anderson said. “That would be foolish. We often get characterized as saying that…but it’s a position that none of us has taken.”

“What we’re really saying, and what people really need to understand, is that any of the more extreme forms of aggression, really requires multiple risk factors to be present at the same time.”

“Media violence is only one of them,” he explained. “It happens to be one that is very pervasive, that almost everyone is exposed to. It happens to be one that a large portion of the population are exposed to frequently. It happens to be one that is easy and cheap to fix, from a parent’s perspective.”

“We can’t do anything about the genetics [and] we typically can’t do a whole lot about social environment,” Anderson said.

He added that parents who more closely monitor their kids can control their social influences somewhat, but it’s still more difficult than simply monitoring a child’s media intake.

“It’s not nearly as easy as providing a healthy media diet, rather than an unhealthy one.”

What the statistics really mean

Anderson said the mainstream media tend to report that media violence effects studies demonstrate a ‘small to moderate effect,’ which doesn’t seem that concerning to an average person. But he explains that this is a statistical definition, and the term ‘small’ can misrepresent the actual risk.

“We know that some small effects can have a pretty big impact at a societal level,” he said.

Anderson points out that studies about childhood lead exposure reveal only a small to moderate effect on brain development, but we as a society have taken dramatic measures to reduce lead in homes and other buildings. He wishes we would take violent media more seriously as a threat.

Does the type of media matter?

Anderson said researchers don’t really know for sure if one type of media ‘teaches’ aggressive behavior more effectively. “Violent video games and violent screen media probably have a bigger impact than other forms…and there’s very little evidence that reading violent-themed books will have the same impact.”

Lord-of-the-Rings-MovieHe thinks that books put violence in a context more effectively than do other forms of media. As an example, he compares the amount of violence in Lord of the Rings in book and movie forms.

“What percent of time in the movie is one looking at, thinking about, and essentially cheering on violent behavior? It’s probably fifty percent, and there’s not a whole lot of context behind it.” He compares this with the books in the series, in which significantly less time is focused on violence.

“It isn’t like books have no impact…but in terms of what most adolescents are exposed to, I’d much rather have them reading about factual things about World War II than playing certain violent video games based on World War II. They’ll actually learn some history, and if it’s a well-written book, they’ll get some context about what was going on. They’ll get a feeling for the suffering of individuals who were killed and maimed, and the suffering of family members.”

What can parents do?

He says that he and most of his fellow researchers give the same advice to parents concerned about the children’s media use:

“The first thing is, you shouldn’t have any kind of gaming system available in the kids’ private space. Keep the bedroom for reading, drawing, and sleeping. But no TV, DVD player, GameBoy, Internet access, especially for the younger children, but even in high school.”

Keeping such devices in more public spaces such as the kitchen or dining room, Anderson said, makes incidental monitoring by parents and caregivers easier. The research shows that such casual supervision reduces the number of hours kids spend on inappropriate media.

Monitoring also helps parents learn more about the media their children are actually using. Anderson said surveys show that kids often don’t reveal what their real favorite media are if they think their parents will find out. Some falsely claim they watch the Disney channel, and the parents might not question that.

“Parents frequently don’t know what their kids are doing,” he said.

There is evidence that active parental involvement, particularly ongoing discussions about why certain media are inappropriate, can help in two ways: it can decrease the amount of such media content the children seek out, and it can help children understand acceptable and unacceptable uses of violence in the real world.

Such conversations do not inoculate children against violent media content, but they do seem to help limit their effects.

“There is evidence that it provides a protective layer,” he said. “They’re still harmed, but they don’t seem to be as harmed.”

But my kid is OK, right?

Anderson cautions parents against assuming that their own children are immune to effects of violent media content, even if other children are affected. This assumption is known as the ‘third-person effect,’ and Anderson sees it frequently in his work.

“These effects occur even if you don’t feel them occurring.” He compares it with eating a huge cheeseburger; you don’t feel your cholesterol rising, but it’s happening nonetheless. For better or worse, children learn lessons from media about how to resolve conflict, how to treat others, and when it’s appropriate to behave aggressively.

He encourages parents to have ongoing conversations with kids, comparing their values with what they see on the screen: “What’s important to us? What’s important to our family? How does the real world work?”

“You can convey this idea that it isn’t appropriate,” Anderson said. “That we don’t bully others, that we don’t talk to people in this harmful way, that all of these are forms of aggression.”

 

 

iPads + questionable judgment = these products

iPad bouncy seat You may have heard about the new bouncy chair for infants that enables parents to mount an iPad directly in front of the baby’s face. This product from Fisher Price has raised the eyebrows of a lot of skeptical parents, and rightfully so. In my observations of parent-friends, a bouncy chair is best for infants, and toddlers generally won’t sit still in them. Presumably, then, this product is meant to encourage tablet use by children under age two. But the American Academy of Pediatrics makes the following recommendation:

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

 

This wisdom, based on common sense as well as research on brain development, seems to be no barrier to the makers (and purchasers) of several other similar products.

 

iLatch tablet mounting deviceThe iLatch is designed to clip on to a stroller cross bar, a shopping cart, or any other horizontal mounting surface, to keep the tablet screen in front of the child’s face. I can certainly understand the need to occupy a child’s attention on long car trips and such. But when you’re out for a walk in a park, or another place filled with visual stimuli to engage the child’s mind, is it really necessary to block that view with a screen?

 

iPotty, a training toilet with a built-in iPad mountThe iPotty keeps a tablet accessible to a child while s/he is potty training. My parent-friends have used books, songs, and other distractions to encourage a child to stay seated until the business is done, but a tablet mounted right in front of him? What if the child learns to associate bathroom trips with tablets, and can only go #1 or #2 if he has an iPad with him?

 

I get it: parenting is incredibly difficult at times, and iPads provide a valuable distraction at crucial moments. But these products seem to make it far too easy to keep a screen in front of a child’s face, when she could be wondering, daydreaming, asking questions, and learning from the people and world around her.

 

One mom says no to media violence, but yes to sex

Cosmo_cover_blackbox

Adrienne does NOT understand why so many parents want this covered.

Adrienne considers moving to Europe on a regular basis. Why? Because there is sex in the media there. She doesn’t like the weird issues Americans have around sex, and she thinks Europeans’ more “blasé” approach is healthier.

“Sex is a normal part of adult life, and that’s kind of the attitude in Europe,” she said.

Adrienne is the mother is two-year-old Aria, and she doesn’t shield her daughter’s eyes from images of women’s naked breasts, like many other parents would.

“It seems like a weird crusade to protect kids from seeing sex,” she said, “since that’s how they got here in the first place.”

The media content Adrienne definitely will try to protect Aria from is excessive violence. It bothers her that characters in children’s movies and even cartoons are killed or maimed on a regular basis.

Adrienne hopes that Aria is developing a healthy understanding of violence and aggression, in part because her father is a martial artist. But she still struggles with the messages she knows her daughter sees in the media.

“It’s so weird and hypocritical for us to tell them not to hit each other,” she said, “and then it’s [supposed to be] funny when they see it on TV. “

She plans to expose Aria to specific types of media content gradually, as she thinks her daughter is ready to think critically and talk about what she’s seeing. Adrienne said she’ll know it’s time for something new when Aria asks questions about it, but she doesn’t know at what age to expect that.

“I don’t know what those intervals are yet,” she said, “because I haven’t met her in the future.”

Adrienne does not agree with the approach many parents have, which is to prevent children from seeing sexual content altogether.

“If you think that you can keep sex away from your child, you are craaaazy,” she said. “They will find it. It will find them.”

Adrienne said she would rather give her daughter good, healthy information about sex than have her learn wrong things from peers or some media messages. She added that her own father let her watch movies with sexual content at a young age, but the real problem was that she felt like she couldn’t discuss sex with him. Adrienne very much wishes he had considered what the messages were in those movies, and had a conversation with her about them at the time.

“We did NOT talk about it,” she said, “and that right there is the problem.”

 

How to watch a violent movie with a teenager

A scene from the 2013 film 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation.'

A scene from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ one of the top-grossing movies of 2013.

It’s not news to anyone who lives in the U.S. that our movies are becoming more violent. And unless your child exists in an opaque, soundproof bubble, s/he will likely encounter violence in movies starting in early adolescence. Many kids enjoy being scared, and some even tend to be drawn toward gory, violent content in media. Others encounter it by accident, often in spite of parents’ efforts to prevent such exposure.

The good news is that media violence does not have a huge effect on behavior overall. Young people like the Columbine High School shooters or the Aurora movie theater shooter are outliers, extreme examples of media content affecting a person’s subsequent decisions and actions. The vast majority of young people who watch characters on screen shoot people and/or maim them will not enact such things themselves. Numerous external factors play a part in an individual’s capacity to imitate such behavior, including the level of violence in the home environment, the availability of weapons, and the person’s own psychological tendencies.

The bad news is that media violence does have some effect, and not just on outliers. One study, among others, demonstrated that exposure to a violent TV show caused children to become desensitized to aggressive behavior they later witnessed. In another study, children’s exposure to violent video games was associated with lower levels of empathy. Research on the ‘cultivation’ effect shows that people in general may perceive the world to be a scarier place than it is, due to exposure to media messages portraying it as such.

What can parents and other adults do to help a teenager evaluate media violence in a productive, critical way? Here are some conversation starters:

“How many people has this guy killed?” Encourage the teen to keep a body count, especially if the character doing a lot of killing is the hero of the story. Ask him/her where all the dead people are, as most movies tend to gloss over the consequences of what are essentially multiple homicides.

“That man’s family won’t ever seen him again.” When an innocent bystander is killed, it’s frequently depicted as no big deal in a shoot-’em-up movie. Encourage your teen to reflect on the fact that every body was a human being, with friends and a family. This may help counter the desensitization effect.

“If he’s killing so many people, why is he the good guy?” Hollywood movies tend to glamorize heroes and make light of their violent actions. Some heroes might kill for good reasons, such as saving otherwise doomed hostages. But many heroes kill for no good reason, and such deaths are often portrayed as necessary, inconsequential, or even humorous. Encouraging a teen to think about the hero’s character and decisions can start a good conversation about which actions are truly heroic, and which are unnecessary destruction.

The aim of all these conversations-starters is to prompt kids to think critically about what they’re seeing. People of all ages are less likely to have a purely affective response to media (as in, ‘wow, cool!’) if we engage cognitively with it.

Coming soon: An expert’s take on playing violent video games with your child.

 

PG-13 = more guns

'White House Down' movie poster depicting a character with a large gun

One of many PG-13-rated movies with a high level of gun violence.

Your 14-year-old wants to see a movie, and before you say yes, you look up the rating: PG-13. No worries, right? But a new study to be published next month in the journal Pediatrics reports that gun violence in movies with a PG-13 rating has actually surpassed that of R-rated movies.

The researchers looked at the 30 most popular films for every year since 1950, and they counted the number of scenes depicting gun violence, defined as “shooting a gun and hitting a living target,” excluding scenes of target practice or hunting animals. They found that the level of gun violence in PG-13-rated movies has increased significantly since 1985, and now exceeds that in R-rated movies. Even the overall level of such violence in PG-rated movies is now about equal to that in R-rated movies.

These findings are especially troubling for two reasons, according to the researchers: First, PG-13 movies are popular, and make up more than one-half of revenues for the top films of all ratings. Teenagers are not restricted from seeing them, so they attract huge audiences.

Second, past research has demonstrated that the mere presence of a gun can ‘prime’ people to behave more aggressively. Researchers call this the ‘weapons effect,’ and a later study showed the effect exists even when people only heard words describing weapons.

What can a parent do? An important first step is to educate yourself about movie ratings: read the MPAA’s guidelines for content given PG, PG-13, and R ratings. In addition, Common Sense Media provides parent-oriented, in-depth reviews of most new releases, to help you decide whether a particular movie is appropriate for your child.

Next week: How to watch a violent movie with your teenager, while encouraging him/her to have a media-literate response to it.