Your children are surrounded by violence. From video games and television to the news itself, bloodshed is everywhere. Many parents and educators fear that violence seen on the media will at the very least desensitize children, and that it may even make children more likely to commit atrocities themselves. Other people claim the violence seen on the media is not real, and that children understand this. So who’s right? In order to better understand this crucial issue, we need to examine the history of violence in entertainment as well as revelations made possible by modern science.
Violence in entertainment is not new. Even in ancient Rome, people gathered to watch gladiators. In gladiator combats, two trained men (usually criminals or slaves) would fight each other in front of a cheering crowd. Sometimes, men would also be forced to fight wild animals. These shows were incredibly popular; in order to accommodate the huge masses of people eager to watch the combat, Roman officials built the Colosseum, which could seat 50,000 spectators, in 80 CE. The opening of the Colosseum was celebrated with 100 days of games, during which thousands of men and animals were seriously injured or killed.
Long before children watched violent cartoons, they listened to violent stories. Even our most cherished fairy tales often contain bloodshed. In fact, modern versions of fairy tales tend to be a lot less violent than the originals. For example, in Hans Christen Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the little mermaid has her tongue cut out, almost stabs her prince, and dies; Disney’s famous version of this classic tale is significantly happier and less violent. But why is violence such a popular form of entertainment? There are several possible answers, and they are probably all true to some extent.
People like watching violence because it is, at least to some degree, forbidden; all functioning societies need to have laws against murder. Seeing other people’s pain also makes your own problems seem insignificant. Finally, some violence in the media was meant to teach a practical lesson. Many gladiators were condemned criminals, so their violent and entertaining death served as a warning against would-be criminals. Public executions have served the same purpose throughout history. Fairy tales also warned children against the dangers of misbehaving.
For example, the little mermaid disobeyed the rules of her father and her people, and she suffered as a result. Modern violence in the media is not that different from what occurred in the past. People enjoy watching violence because it is forbidden, distracting, and it can teach lessons about reality. At the same time, violence is becoming more and more prevalent. Additionally, much of the violence shown in video games, movies, and television is completely unrealistic; real consequences are very rarely shown, especially in cartoons.
As a result, the violence may be too glamorized to teach real life lessons. Even if violence does teach a morality lesson, children may still be negatively affected. Vincent P. Mathews, a professor of radiology at Indiana University School of Medicine, discovered that watching violence on the media might actually alter brain function. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that watching violent images decreased frontal lobe brain activity in children whether or not they had previous problems of aggression. Decreased frontal lobe activity is associated with attention and self control problems.
Also using fMRI, Klaus Mathiak at the University of Aachen in Germany discovered that playing violent video games and thinking about actually participating in real violent activities stimulate the same part of the brain. In other words, an individual’s brain cannot distinguish between violent actions that are committed by the individual and violent activities that are purely make believe. Additionally, violent video games may be training the brain for real life violent behavior. So what does all of this mean for parents?
Children, like adults, are naturally drawn to violent images, and it is possible for children to learn valuable lessons from violent stories. However, exposure to too much violence, especially glamorized violence, probably does have a negative impact of children. Although more scientific research needs to be conducted before conclusive answers can be given, children may have a hard time distinguishing between real violence and fake violence, and simply watching violence may lead to increased behavioral problems. If you are worried that your children are watching too much violence, you should monitor exactly what they are watching.
Movies and video games both have rating systems, and all televisions 13 inches or larger that were manufactured in the United States since January 2000 contain V chips. V chips allow parents to control what programs are watched, even when the children are unsupervised. You could also limit the amount of time that your children are allowed to spend watching television or playing video games, regardless of whether or not the programs or games contain violent content. Finally, you can discuss the reality of violence with you children to make sure that they can differentiate between make believe and reality.