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.”



How to watch a sex scene with your teenager

How to watch a sex scene with your teenagerThis is definitely in the Top 10 Awkward Parenting Situations. Maybe you’ve already talked with your teen about sex, or maybe you’ve yet to do so. Regardless, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’ll be watching a movie or a TV show together, and you’ll see characters on screen doing THAT.

So what’s the big deal? Why not take a bathroom break, talk about something else, pick up your phone, or do anything to try to gloss over the fact that both of you would rather not be watching a sex scene together? Here’s why: Because it’s a valuable way to start a tough but needed conversation.

If s/he is typical, your teenager sees a lot of sexual content in the media, on TV, online, in music videos, movies, and even some video games. To simplify a bit, let’s focus on TV. Of the 20 shows most popular with teens, ‘70% include some kind of sexual content, and nearly half (45%) include sexual behavior.’ This is according to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And some of the messages about sex sink in, for better or worse. The Kaiser study found that ‘nearly three out of four 15- to 17-year-olds say sex on TV influences the sexual behaviors of kids their age.’ Those TV shows do not necessarily depict the consequences of sex; in fact, of teens’ favorite programs, only one out of ten shows with sexual content includes a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities, such as STDs or contraception.

So what should you do in this uncomfortable situation?

Keep it light-hearted. We were all teenagers once, and I for one remember wanting to crawl between the cushions of the couch until the sex scene was over and I could look my mom in the eye again. Don’t try to have a Talk with your teenager at that moment unless s/he seems open to it. But you can still encourage her/him to think critically without making it a big production.

Say, “I hope they’re using condoms.” Or “I wonder if both of them have been tested.” Simple comments like these can get your teen to think about the consequences of sex that are probably not being portrayed in the program or the movie.

Say, “Do you think they’ll make good parents?” Few things disrupt the viewing of a sex scene like the thought of accidental pregnancy. Some teens think about it, but many do not, and most TV shows about sex (between teens or adults) don’t address it.

Say, “It seems like all these kids are hooking up with each other all the time. Is that realistic?” This may be Advanced Parenting 101. Only you can know how your teen might react to this question. But if it’s possible to have this conversation, do so. Some shows and movies about teenagers depict them as far more sexually active than teens are in real life. Posing this question may help them talk about pressure they feel, either from their peers or from the media.

It’s uncomfortable for sure, but taking advantage of conversation-starters like these can help your teen process media messages about sex with a critical eye, and make more informed choices in the future.

No zombies allowed

Boys jumping off a dock into a lakeJudy’s family has lived in three cities on two continents, and one thing has always set their home apart from those around them: there are no video games allowed.

Her sons, 11-year-old Warren and 8-year-old Andrew (right, on a lake vacation), are allowed to play them at friends’ houses, and she knows they generally favor sports games. But Judy does not allow them to play violent games, and she draws the line at having a console at home.

“I just don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t want it in my house.”

Her primary objection to such media is that she observes kids becoming hooked on them too easily.

When her kids are playing video games, she said, “they get this kind of zombie look that overtakes their expression.”

In contrast, when her boys are playing outside and having fun doing other things, she said they seem to forget what she refers to as the ‘siren call’ of media entertainment. Judy takes very seriously her responsibility to help her children make good choices regarding media.

“Your job as a parent,” she said, “is to teach them to resist stuff that gives them a quick high, but isn’t good for them in the end.”

She’s frequently surprised by comments she hears from other parents, when they say they don’t feel like they can really say no to all of their kids’ media demands.

“I was like, turn. It .Off,” she said. “You’re the parent.”

Judy knows how hard companies work to counter such actions by parents. She worked for many years in market segmentation, and observed first-hand the strategies and techniques companies use to target children.

As a parent, she said, she wants to protect her children from such manipulation, but also ensure they have the knowledge and experience with technology that they need in the 21st century.

At the start of this school year, she decided to let her 11-year-old have an old iPhone, to keep up with his peers. They went over the family rules about it, and talked about cyber bullying and other issues. Her son recently came home with a question that hints at the years to come:

“Someone said they want to be my friend on Facebook. What does that mean?”


A Kindle, pixels, and moral lessons

Lorelei does not let her son watch TV for one primary reason: the commercials. She is opposed to the values that advertising promotes, and she’d rather 5-year-old Sebastian didn’t absorb their “messages of material consumption.”

pic_for_Lorelei_postInstead, Sebastian’s digital device of choice is a Kindle Fire, which his mother says he uses to play video games and watch occasional videos (pre-screened by her) on Netflix and YouTube.

She has a mixed opinion of video games, having been an avid player of them in her 20s. On the positive side, she says, they can help develop hand-eye coordination, teach problem-solving and math skills, and encourage reading. In her opinion, multi-player games can even help the user learn social skills and people management.

One category Lorelei generally says no to is violent video games such as first-person shooters and Grand Theft Auto, which she describes as “morally corrupt.” She does not believe that these games directly cause people to commit violence, but she does have a problem with some of the actions a player can take in such games, such as hitting a prostitute with one’s car to steal money from her.

While she generally doesn’t have an issue with kids killing unreal monsters – such as zombies – in a game, she doesn’t like her son to engage in the more realistic violence in games like GTA. In such a situation, Lorelei does not relish making the distinction to a five-year-old between violence in real life and in the game world.

“Trying to explain why it’s not okay to kill a hooker but you can run down a pixelated one is MUCH harder,” she says.

Lorelei uses the Kindle as a privilege to help teach Sebastian manners and money management. He rarely gets to use it at the dinner table, and when he asks for an app that must be purchased, he earns it by doing age-appropriate chores.

As a parent, Lorelei strives for balance in her son’s use of the device.

“It’s lovely to be able to get things done around the house and work on my own projects with him fully occupied,” she says. “On the other hand, I strive to encourage him to find OTHER things to occupy himself with, such as reading or art or playing outside.”

Lorelei is amazed by and sometimes concerned about the level of access to media Sebastian’s generation has. She compares it to her own childhood, when media consisted of four TV channels and an Atari console at a friend’s house. She recalls Saturday morning cartoons as the apex of her week, with regard to media.

“We had to wait for one day a week, and it only lasted like two hours.”