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Violence in the Media: What You Need to Know

Violence in the Media: What You Need to Know

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Updated on Sep 3, 2009

Finding Nemo—too violent for children under age 4?

We’ve heard of the studies—the research that shows that even some G-rated movies are inappropriate and potentially harmful to young children’s health. The research is out there, but largely ignored by parents.

Victor Strasburger, MD, noted pediatrician and author of many American Academy of Pediatrics position statements regarding children, adolescents, and the media, explains that over 2,000 studies have shown that viewing media violence is a risk factor for aggressive behavior in children. “Of all the aspects of media, parents seem most concerned about sex and drugs and least concerned about violence, and yet that’s what we know the most about,” Strasburger says. “That’s what the research has been about in the past 50 years.”

What exactly have the studies shown? Michael Rich, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, says media violence affects people in three basic ways. First, media desensitizes people to violence, Rich says, “and the way this plays out in kids’ lives is that they’re less likely to stick up for the kid getting picked on on the playground.” Second, media violence causes an increase in general fear and anxiety. And third, it can lead to an increase in aggressive thoughts and behaviors. “This is, in fact, the smallest effect in terms of numbers,” Rich says, “but it’s relevant even if just one kid picks up a gun and goes to school with it.”

Rich, also on the faculty at the Harvard School of Health, explains that what concerns doctors and researchers is that nobody knows who is predisposed to picking up the gun—who is most vulnerable. And this is why, Rich says, all parents should be selective in what their children watch.

“It’s always been amusing to me that we want kids to ‘just say no,’” Strasburger says, “but parents need to learn to ‘just say no,’ and they don’t know how.”

Strasburger says parents should be familiar with the concept of “ratings creep”: what used to be R-rated is now PG-13; what used to be PG-13 is now PG. The ratings have crept up over time, and parents are more and more frequently exposing their children to films that are inappropriate for their age.

Kimberly Thompson, Sc.D.,Harvard professor and director of the Kids Risk Project, explains that film producers provide information about their movies to the Rating Board, and parents have to trust that the producers have done the right thing. “The government doesn’t have any regulatory authority,” Thompson says. “It’s a really different situation than it is with food, for example.”

Rich says that censorship is not the answer, however. “What I think won’t work is legislation to restrict or censor this stuff out. The first amendment is far too important to use the blunt instrument of the law,” he says. “I think what we need to do is start to respect the media we use and understand how we are changed by them. We need to embrace that and say, ‘Let’s be changed in ways we want to be changed.’”

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