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Children need protection from ‘virtual violence,’ says leading group of pediatricians

In its policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics expresses a great deal of frustration that we’re still arguing about the risk of media violence on the health of children.

In a restrained but no-nonsense policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently called on parents, doctors and policy makers to take stronger action to limit children’s exposure to “virtual violence,” including “first-person shooter games and other realistic video games and applications.”

“Although there is broad scientific consensus that virtual violence increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, there has been little public action to help mitigate children’s exposure to it,” the policy statement declares.

That action is needed more than ever before, according to the AAP. For, as its policy statement points out, “today’s children experience screen violence on many different platforms, including computers video games, and touch-screen devices, in addition to longstanding platforms, such as televisions”

Furthermore, screen violence has become both “more prevalent and more intense,” says the statement.

Frustration with false equivalency

In its policy statement, the AAP expresses a great deal of frustration that we’re still arguing about the risk of media violence on the health of children:

Unfortunately, media reports frequently present “both sides” of the media violence and aggression issue by pairing a research scientists with an industry expert or spokesperson or even a contrarian academic, which creates a false equivalency and the misperception that research data and scientific consensus are lacking. A sizeable majority of media researchers both in pediatrics and psychology believe that existing data show a significant link between virtual violence and aggression. One might justifiably wonder why the contrarian position to media violence is so frequently presented when it is no longer presented for passive smoke exposure.

The AAP also warns parents not to fall into the psychological trap of thinking that their children are not vulnerable to the negative influences of media violence:

Although the majority of Americans believe there is a causal relationship between screen violence and real-world aggression, most believe that they and their children are immune to these effects. The so-called third-person effect causes people to believe that other people, not themselves, but some small, susceptible fraction of people, are influenced in a way the majority of the population is not.

Stipulating that this belief is true, even if it is assumed that only 2% of the public is inducted to behave more aggressively after being exposed to violent media, it can be expected that 400,000 of the 20 million viewers of the latest violent blockbuster film will exhibit increased aggression after viewing the movie, at least for a short period of time.

Surely, even that figure is large enough to warrant some public attention and action.

‘Robust’ evidence

The AAP statement notes that hundreds of published studies — “observational and experimental as well as laboratory and field based” — have investigated the topic of media violence and its effects on children over the past half-century.

Although it acknowledges that “individual research approaches may have shortcomings,” the AAP argues that, when all the research is considered, “the linkage between virtual violence and aggression has been well supported and is robust.”

It is true that an experimental, real-world study that links virtual violence with real-world violence has not been conducted. Such a study will never be undertaken for several reasons, including the fact that actual violence is, fortunately, so rare that an exceedingly large sample would be needed, and inducing and observing actual violence by manipulating subjects would never pass ethical scrutiny.

But experimental linkages between virtual violence and real-world aggression have been found. For example, a recent experimental study conducted in the real world motivated parents to change their children’s media diet by substituting prosocial programs in place of violent ones. This study found decreases in aggression and improvement in overall behavior.

What parents can do

In its policy statement, the AAP makes many recommendations, including these simple and practical tips for parents: 

  • Parents should be mindful of what shows their children watch and which games they play.
  • When possible, [parents] should coplay games with their children so as to have a better sense of what the games entail.
  • Young children (under the age of 6 years) need to be protected from virtual violence.
  • First-person shooter games, in which killing others is the central theme, are not appropriate for any children.

The AAP also calls on government officials to “oversee the development of a robust, valid, reliable, and ‘parent-centric’ rating system rather than relying on industry to do so.”

FMI:  The AAP’s new policy statement on virtual violence was published in its journal Pediatrics, and can be read in full online.

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