Make a New Year Resolution Today: Throw Out Those Violent Video Games

video-game-images

I don’t think violent video games belong in a civilized society. Yes, I know this is an unpopular stance to be sure—if you are a parent of a teen, it’s an even more unpopular mindset. A 2015 Pew Research Center Study discovered 84% of teenage boys play video games, with about 95% of those games being violent.

Now, we aren’t talking about Three Stooges violence or even Terminator mayhem, we are talking about the most grotesque, most despicable, horrific violence that can be imagined.

Let’s get a perspective for a minute. In 1993 I was on the Advisory Board of Mothers Against Violence in America. (MAVA) I consulted on an educational video they produced about violent video games. At the time, one of the games, actually had the player setting African American men on fire and snickering as they were burning, “Smells like fried chicken,”

I am not making this up. This experience prompted me to write in 1999 and re-write in 2014, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against Violent TV, Movie and Video Game Violence (with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman). “Games” since the 90s have become even more hateful; horrifying.

Most folks think racism comes from lack of teaching children empathy, but you can’t teach empathy.

In reality, a child must first recognize self as an empathetic person before any teaching about empathy can “take.” Humans can’t learn empathy without experiencing ourselves as empathetic. Learning higher-level emotions like empathy, compassion, and generosity aren’t learned like algebra, geography, or chemistry.

Brain science clearly shows us that what children do most often, significantly shapes how children grow to see themselves. No amount of parental guidance about loving others and treating them fairly can easily counteract the racism reinforced hundreds of times in daily rehearsal during the developing years. Hate-mongering racist video games build a racist self-identity. They also build a domineering, bullying self-identity.

Which leads me to reason I decided to write this blog. Several weeks ago a teen shot herself in front of her parents, so despondent over cyber bullying because of her weight. A few days after hearing about this tragedy, a relative told me that one of her former students committed suicide and went on to tell me of the teen suicide epidemic in her area—mostly teen girls who have been relentlessly harassed by teen boys.

As youth, struggle with questions of “Who am I?” and “How do I relate to others?” violent video games give them a world in which it they have to choose: “Do I become a bully (dominator)?” or “Do I give up and be a victim?” There are no other alternatives. The youth, prone to aggression, or angry at his parents’ recent divorce, will relate to the dominator portrayed on the screen, making an active decision to perpetuate violence onto someone else. On the other hand, kids who feel out of control, hopeless and isolated, may move toward feeling helpless initially, only to revert to “dominator tactics” when seeking revenge for the bullying. Victims can easily turn into bullies, but usually not vice-versa. Victims live in a pressure-cooker of hate. As pressure builds up beyond the capacity to cope, there are only two outlets left for the victim—explosion (killing others in revenge,) or implosion (suicide).

Because the portrayal of dominator/victim relationships is so pervasive in violent video games, and because violent video games are now normalized entertainment for youth, there is an implicit social sanction for the violence of the dominator/victim relationship.

As youth grow into the dominator role, acting it out in peer groups, practicing it over and over with violent video games, bullying others starts to feel normal. There is a sense of rightness to the domination, a sense of I have the right to treat others this way. And, the victim also feels this implicit social sanction as a disempowerment. This is why makes it so difficult, even with help, to escape from the victim role in a social group, because the form of the relationship appears to be “normal” thanks to media violence portrayals.

Parents, teachers and authorities, individually and together, work hard to protect kids from the tide of bullying sweeping our country. And while a few victories have been achieved, bullying overall increases. All of their efforts are like firefighters trying to put out a fire, while someone else goes around and dumps gasoline on the hot spots. Video game violence is that gasoline. Until we recognize and address its influence on bullying, by modeling and sanctioning the dominator/victim relationship, it is unlikely that we will succeed in putting out the fire of bullying, raging in our schools today.

So where to begin? I believe parents will make positive differences and help schools make significant strides, if they throw out violent video games, not allowing their children or teens to play them in their homes.

A violent-video free home is one of the most important first steps to countering cyber bullying in our schools. And it’s so do-able!

If childhood and adolescence is a special time for helping kids grow to become their best selves, then violent video games have no place in their lives. Common Sense Media has developed a list of the current Top Ten Violent Video Games of 2016, along with more appropriate alternatives.

And you can always do your own search for “non-violent video games.” The interesting, healthy alternatives that come up may surprise you and delight your kids.

It’s sure worth the try.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

 

Decreasing Risk Factors for Violent Behavior

We either protect kids or we put them at risk for violent behavior. While simply direct you and I know at the same time, it’s profoundly complex and nuanced.

As we contemplate yet two more campus shootings (Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University) in the aftermath of the Umpqua Community College campus massacre, the predictable gun control debate ensues as it should. It is absolutely critical that we address easy access to weapons and follow the lead of countries like Canada and Australia who have developed practical, sane gun laws.

Yet equally important is the recognition that there are other risk factors that converge in a multitude of ways to form a person who wants to kill other people.

Decades of research have identified key risk factors contributing to violent behavior:

  • An abusive home life; an unstable family situation
  • Poverty
  • A steady diet of media violence; violent video games
  • Anger and depression
  • Pornography
  • Cults and gangs
  • Easy access to and a fascination with weapons
  • Peer pressure
  • An introduction to a criminal lifestyle from a family member or friend
  • Gang membership or pressure to join a gang
  • Bullying
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Lack of spiritual guidance and appropriate discipline

The more risk factors children experience, the more likely serious violence will erupt at moments of severe stress. It is precisely at such moments that kids are most likely to revert to their earliest, most visceral remembrance of violence. Consider the power of such violent “imprinting” on a little boy who watches his dad beat his mom repeatedly. He is two, three, four, or five years old and he despises this behavior and he hates his father. But if he is not careful, twenty years later, when he is under stress and he has a wife and kids, what is he likely to do? He will do the same thing he saw his father do. Why? He, of all people, should understand how despicable this behavior is, how much his children will hate him. How much he’ll hate himself. But he can’t help it—it was burned into his system at an early age and imprinted on how he deals with like situations.

Now consider that this little boy not only observes domestic violence, but is also physically abused himself. He distracts himself from the pain he experiences by watching television. Like 65 percent of kids in our country, he escapes to his bedroom and watches TV or plays violent video games. He likes watching violence. The violent imagery, in fact, reinforces and justifies the violence he is experiencing in the home. How much more likely is it that he will become a violent abuser himself?

An estimated four million American children are victimized each year by physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, community violence, and other traumatic events. When television, video games, and immersion in any form of screen technology is added to this equation, more stress is added to the child’s life. Research has found that abused children watch more television than other children do, prefer violent programs, and appear to admire violent heroes. Children who are both abused and watchers of a great deal of television are most likely to commit violent crimes later in life.Risk Protective Factors

The other side of this coin is that the cumulative risk of violent behavior lessens if there are also protective factors in the child’s life. Important protective factors include:

  • A stable family life with loving, involved parents
  • Good school performance; enjoyment of learning and reading
  • Development of talents outside screen technologies such as music, dance, art, sports, studying a foreign language
  • A mutually supportive peer group
  • Active involvement in a church, synagogue, temple; spiritual guidance
  • Community participation; involvement in schools activities such as Student Council or the debate team
  • Media literacy education in schools
  • No TV or screen time from birth through age 2; one hour or less day with all forms of screen technologies throughout childhood
  • Rules and consistent enforcement for both content viewed and use of media and digital devices, such as a bedroom free of TV and keeping the TV off when no one is watching it
  • Little or no multi-tasking with many forms of screen technologies, such as being on computer doing homework and playing video games, texting, and using social media at the same time
  • Regular family conversations; regular family meetings to discuss potentially contentious issues before they erupt; frequent conversations about violent media and media in general with parents and caring adults
  • Preventive measures, such as counseling before anger or depression get out of hand
  • Stress reduction and meditation techniques
  • A healthy lifestyle habit of physical activity and good nutrition

Realistically, then, on any given day for any given child a mix of both risk and protective factors will be present. It stands to reason that by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors in children’s and teens’ lives, we also decrease the likelihood of future mass shootings.

Yes, it’s complicated. And, of course, it will take time. But the time to act is now with our direct influence in the lives of the children and parents in our sphere of influence.

  • When you review the protective factors above, are there any you can add to your family life? Are there any you can help a mom or dad you know become more aware of?
  • In your corner of your world with your skills, talents, passion and big heart is there any one small thing you can do each day to increase protection factors and reduce risk factors for those that you love?

Each time I hear of these horrific tragedies, I also hear a voice in my head whispering, “Do more.”

I hope you agree.

Adapted from Stop Teaching Or Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, Harmony Books, 2014.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2015. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Media Violence: Risk Factor for Aggression (Same Old Story, Part 2)

The year was 1986. One of my high school juniors alerted me that Terry Gillian’s movie, Brazil, was a Must See. “This is what the kids today are doing,” he told me exasperated with urgent concern, as he recounted how the movie showed very young children imitated the torturous violence all around them.

“Really? You think kids today are imitating the violence they see on TV and in the movies?” I asked curiously.

“Absolutely. Check it out Ms. D. I think you would agree with me.”

Well, check it out I did. My quest led me to the dusty shelves of Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington’s campus where I was teaching part-time. I came across scores of studies that basically led me to the jaw-dropping conclusion that no further research was needed on the subject. End of story: A steady habit of media violence makes kids more aggressive. Couldn’t be clearer.

One study that stood out was a twenty-two-year longitudinal study, ending in 1985, by Professors Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann from the University of Chicago. They followed the fates of 875 children living in a semi-rural U.S. county. Their findings showed that exposure to TV violence before the age of 8 was predictive of aggressive behavior as age 19. 2 young boys playingvideo games

Since the study took place over two decades, second-generation effects could be observed: Alarmingly, childhood TV habits predicted criminal arrests at age 30. Girls and boys watching more television at age eight were later, as mothers and fathers, likely to use physical punishment with their own children more severely than those parents who had watched less television as children. Remarkably, how much television violence a thirty-year-old parent had been watching at age eight predicted their children’s degree of physical aggressiveness even better than it predicted the parents own physical aggressiveness at age thirty. The researchers pointed out that aggressive habits learned early in life can be resistant to change and “predictive of serious adult antisocial behavior.” (1) And remember this was television violence. Children younger than eight were not playing violent video games from 1963-1985.

As important as it is, most moms and dads in 2015 have never heard of this study. Let alone the thousands ever since. Imagine that. The media obviously keeps such media violence studies out of the limelight. That is why in the 2014 revision of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill I made sure to incorporate key studies from 1970 to the present—in a concise, readable summary form. I was thinking at the time that if parents really knew how much definitive research was out there, they would have backbone information to bolster them to say “No” to their children’s pleas for the next violent video game.

 

 

One ship you can ignore, but not an armada.”

Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence (2)

 

Now I am wondering if the same research repeated for decades can actually be significant? As I expressed frustrations in my July 16 post, the same old story (S.O.S.) keeps us trapped in a never-ending cycle of research and findings, research and findings, research and findings, etc. etc., while screen technologies spin out of control. Media violence, for instance, has escalated to such pathological proportions many children’s (and families’) lives are in shambles because of it. The research can only help if people know about it. And then if they know about it they want to do something about their children’s media life as a result. Sadly, the media violence research has yet to penetrate parental decision-making.

The American Psychological Association issued a new report on August 13 stating, “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”

 

I wonder…

 

  • Will this “news” be available to the people who actually make decisions on behalf of children?

 

  • And if it is, will the people who make decisions on behalf of children choose to deny it or ignore it? Or take it to heart?

 

Perhaps researchers and organizations that care about public health issues believe that they have to keep telling the Same Old Story until enough folks “get it.”

With 3 million U. S. kids currently seriously damaging multiple levels of their lives because of their gaming habits (3), we may have to get really bored with the Same Old Story until enough folks “get it.” How many more decades will that take, do you think?

And when that alleluia day comes, please note:

It will be too late for a high quality life for at least 3 million of our youth.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2015. All rights reserved.

 

References

1.   Eron and Huesmann longitudinal study and 1986 study cite in: L. Rowell Huesman, “The impact of electronic media violence: scientific theory and research,” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 41, no. 6, December 2007, 6-13.

2.  One ship you can ignore, but not an armada: Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence. New York: Pantheon Books, 2013, 44-45.

3.  3 million children seriously damaging multiple areas of their lives because of their gaming habits: Douglas A. Gentile in Andrew P. Doan and Brooke Strickland, Hooked on Games: The Lure and Cost of Video Game and Internet Addiction, (F.E.P International, Inc., 2012), 10.