Feb. 17, 2005 -- When violence appears on TV, in a movie, or on computer screens, it can color the thoughts, emotions, and behavior of the kids who see it.
For years, experts have debated whether (or how) media violence affects kids. Now, two British experts from England's University of Birmingham add to the debate.
"There is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and video, and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions," write Kevin Browne, PhD, and Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis in The Lancet's Feb. 19 edition.
The pair reviewed six studies on kids and media violence. All of the studies were done in North America. Two papers focused only on TV and movies; the other four projects also included violence in videos and computer games.
Violent imagery increases "the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behavior in younger children, especially boys," write the researchers, who work at the university's Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology.
Media violence's long-term impact and effects on older children and teens are less clear, write the researchers. They also found only weak evidence directly linking media violence to crime.
Many studies have given a thumbs-down review to media violence. Some note that the consequences of violence are rarely shown. In one U.S. report, 42% of the violent scenes studied were played for laughs. That could give impressionable young kids unrealistic ideas about violence, say critics.
Which Kids Are Most Affected?
Some kids may be more affected by media violence than others. Besides age, personality could play a role.
The sex of the children also matters. Boys were more affected than girls, but more work is needed in that area, write the researchers.
Mental health problems might also make a difference. Little research has been done in that area, the researchers write.
Viewers' families are important. It's been suggested that dysfunctional families affect responses to media violence, write the researchers.
"For example, growing up in a violent family and being a victim of violence or witnessing violence between others is known to have a strong effect on a person's predisposition to act aggressively," they write.
Media violence isn't just tied to aggressive behavior. It can also frighten children. For young kids, that was especially true for news programs depicting disasters such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Putting Media Violence in Perspective
Ideally, producers would be sensitive to the power they wield, and parents would know what their kids are viewing, write the researchers.
But in the real world, it can be hard for parents to monitor their children's media habits. With TV, movies, videos, and computer games, many parents don't know what their kids see every day.
"The availability of video film, satellite, and cable TV in the home allows children access to violent media inappropriate for their age, developmental stage, and mental health," write the researchers.
They add that computer games have become much more sophisticated, drawing the player into the games' virtual worlds, many of which are violent. "Games with human characters had more effect than abstract violence," they note.
If parents can't be censors, they should watch violent material -- fictional or factual -- with their kids and encourage them to think critically about what's shown, write the researchers.
Talk about realism, justification, and consequences of the violence, they suggest. "In this way, caregivers can reduce the effect of violent imagery."