Environmental Risk Factors (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Turbulent Times

Violence in the lives of children takes on a new meaning during a national crisis. On September 11, 2001, life in the United States changed forever. The extraordinary events of that day and the days that followed shattered everyone’s sense of safety and security. Glued to their television sets, people watched time and time again two hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Center in New York. Young children, with their limited understanding of the world, believed that each replay was a different event, a different plane, and yet another building. Some felt as if there were no safe place left on earth. If their parents worked in tall buildings or traveled in planes, they worried that they would never see them again.

Catastrophic events such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and earthquakes create a sense of helplessness and make everyone feel frightened, especially when they happen close to home. Children are particularly vulnerable, because they depend on the adults around them to make them feel safe. Their ability to recover is intimately connected to the ability of their families and teachers to comfort and reassure them.

Each child responds differently to an event like September 11 or Hurricane Katrina. Some react right away; others take weeks to show their fear, anger, and sadness; some bounce back relatively quickly; others may experience problems over a long period. Several factors influence a child’s reaction: her age (both chronological and developmental), her temperament, her family’s response to the event, and how physically and emotionally close she is to the disaster. Children who’ve lost a friend or relative or witnessed the event in person will be the hardest hit (Greenman, 2001). Boys take longer to recover and are more prone to act aggressively; girls express their feelings in words and ask more questions (American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d.).

Children age 5 and under may express their anxiety by crying, whining, throwing tantrums, or becoming afraid of strangers. They may also be more frightened of the world and new situations, cling to their parents and/or favorite objects, and become afraid to leave home. They may have difficulty sleeping and regress to behaviors that they used when they were younger. School-age children may also experience these symptoms, and their behavior may be aggressive or disruptive; they may get angrier and more combative; they may be irritable and have trouble paying attention. Or they may withdraw and become depressed, anxious, or numb (National Institute of Mental Health, 2001b).

Extremely sensitive children and those already struggling with stress will have a particularly hard time. Children who’ve experienced previous losses, children whose families are too upset and fearful to provide the reassurance they need, and children who were barely coping in the period before the disaster may be overwhelmed. Children whose behavior was already out of control may deteriorate further. Children who are surrounded by angry people looking for revenge may respond with anger that comes to the fore in their interactions with their peers. In all of these cases, challenging behavior is often the result.

Violent Media

Some experts believe that when it comes to violence, the media exert as much influence as family and peers (Levin, 1998; Slaby, 1997). Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold provide vivid anecdotal evidence for this opinion: The teenagers who killed 13 students and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 played the video game Doom obsessively (Bai, 1999).

Children spend an average of 35 hours a week in front of the television—more time than they spend doing anything but sleeping (Levin, 1998). One-year-olds watch an average of 2.2 hours a day (Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe, and McCarty, 2004), and 26 percent of children under 2 years have a television set in their bedroom (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). African American children watch more than European American children, and children in poor families watch more than children in affluent families (Slaby, 1997).

In 1972, the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior concluded that there is a direct, causal link between seeing violence on television and aggressive behavior. In 2000, six major professional societies—including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association—officially concurred, saying that “the data point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children” (“Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children,” 2000). Meta-reviews of the most rigorous studies indicate that the effects of television violence are very strong (Coie and Dodge, 1998).

Children are the most susceptible viewers because they are the least able to evaluate what they see (Slaby, 1997). Researchers (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Donnerstein, Slaby, and Eron, 1994; Slaby, 1997) have documented at least four main effects:

  • Aggressor effect. Children who watch violent media are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, especially if they identify with aggressive characters or find the violence realistic and relevant to their own lives. They may come to think that aggression is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. The more violence a child watches, the more aggressive the child’s behavior is likely to become.
  • Victim effect. Watching television violence makes some children more fearful. Most vulnerable are those who identify with the victim and perceive the violence as realistic. Heavy viewers of violence can acquire “mean-world syndrome,” mistrusting people and seeing the world as more dangerous than it really is.
  • Bystander effect. Watching media violence desensitizes children and leads them to think that violence is normal, especially when programs present it as acceptable and without consequences. Instead of responding to real-life pain and suffering with sympathy, child viewers of violence remain indifferent. In one experiment, children who had watched a violent program were far less likely to intervene or call for help when fighting broke out among the children they were “babysitting” (Thomas and Drabman, 1975).
  • Increased appetite effect. When television violence is fun and exciting, children crave more of it. Children who behave aggressively watch more violent television in order to justify their behavior.

Research is also uncovering evidence that watching television at a very young age is associated with attentional and organizational problems and impulsive behavior at age 7. One study found that a child’s risk of attention problems rose by nearly 10 percent for each hour of television she watched per day (Christakis et al., 2004). Another study (Zimmerman, Glew, Christakis, and Katon, 2005) links bullying in school-age children to early television viewing. Prosocial television has prosocial effects, but there is relatively little of it to be seen (Donnerstein et al., 1994; Murray, 1997).

Whether violence enters their lives via their own families, their peers, their neighbors, or the media, children who are exposed to it are learning that it is an acceptable—and effective—way to resolve conflict and gain power. They become readier to accept aggressive behavior both in themselves and in others, and they are at high risk for criminal behavior and for aggressive behavior in their own dating and marital relationships (Suderman and Jaffe, 1997).

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