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Children are more likely to play with real guns after watching a violent movie, study finds

Almost 60 percent of U.S. households with guns do not keep them locked up — even though most unintentional shootings of children happen at home.

A closer analysis revealed that the children who had watched a violent movie engaged in more aggressive play, including with Nerf guns.
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Children are more likely to play with a real gun after watching a PG-rated movie with violence and guns than after watching the same movie with the violence cut out of it, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

This finding is troubling, given how easily accessible guns and media violence are to many children in the United States. Hear are some of the sobering statistics:

  • Almost 60 percent of U.S. households with guns do not keep them locked up — even though most unintentional shootings of children happen at home, usually as a result of a child finding and playing with an unlocked gun.
  • Children in the U.S. are 10 times more likely to die as the result of an unintentional shooting than children from other developed countries.
  • Gun violence in movies has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly in PG-rated ones. Such violence more than doubled between 1985 and 2005, and a study published earlier this year found that the amount of violence in movies aimed at children has continued through 2015. 

Previous studies have shown that the more adolescents are exposed to movie characters who smoke and drink alcohol, the greater the likelihood they will engage in those behaviors. The authors of the current study — Brad Bushman of Ohio State University and Kelly Dillon of Wittenberg University — wanted to find out if something similar happens when younger children see movie characters using guns. Would they be more likely to use a real gun?

Study details

For the study, Busman and Dillon recruited 104 children in 51 pairs aged 8 to 12 years old. The children in each pair were siblings, stepsiblings, cousins or friends.

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Each pair was randomly assigned to watch a 20-minute edited version of a PG-rated film, either “The Rocketeer” (1991) or “National Treasure” (2004). There were two versions of each movie — one that contained scenes with guns and one that did not.  The action and narrative of the movie were not altered in the non-gun version.

After watching the movie, the children were led into a different room with a cabinet that contained an assortment of toys, including Lego bricks, Nerf guns and various board games. One of the cabinet drawers contained a real 38-caliber handgun. The gun had been disabled, of course, so that it wouldn’t fire, but the trigger and hammer were still functional.

Before the door to the playroom was closed, the children were told they could play with anything. They were also told that a research assistant would be in the adjacent room if they had any questions. (The children’s parents and the researchers watched the playroom from behind a one-way window.) 

Key findings

Of the 52 pairs of children, 43 (82.7 percent) found the gun in the cabinet drawer. Of those, 14 pairs (26.9 percent) gave the gun to the research assistant (or informed the assistant about it).

In 22 of the pairs (42.3 percent), one or both children handled the gun.

The children who watched the violent version of the movie were not more likely to find the gun — or even to handle it. But if they did pick up the gun, they were much more likely to pull the trigger.  

In fact, they pulled the trigger of the gun 22 times more than those who saw the movie clip without the violence. They also held the gun longer — an average of 53 seconds versus 11 seconds.

In addition, a closer analysis of the videotapes revealed that the children who had watched the violent movie engaged in more aggressive play, including with the Nerf guns (such as aiming at their partner’s head instead of aiming at a target on the wall).

Limitations and implications

The study has several limitations. Most notably, it involved a relatively small number of children, and most of them came from urban or suburban settings. It could be that rural children would react differently if they found a hidden gun.

Also, the playroom contained only one modified gun, but two Nerf guns, a situation that may have influenced the children’s choice of play. (The Nerf guns meant both children would have a weapon.)

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Still, the findings are concerning, for they suggest that immediately after watching movie characters fire guns, children are more likely to do the same — if they have the opportunity.

As two editors of JAMA Pediatrics note in an accompanying editorial, “decrying media violence” is probably not an effective response to this study’s findings. “There is simply too much of it, and it is not going away,” they write.

Parents should take steps to limit their children’s exposure to such violence, they add, but the reality of our culture is that “guns, children, and violent screen media will continue to exist.”

Something can — and must — be done, however, about gun storage, the editors stress. Indeed, other research has shown that the safe storage of guns is associated with a 75 percent reduced risk of unintentional shootings and gun-related shooting about children and teenagers.

Yet, as already noted, almost 60 percent of U.S. households with guns do not store those guns safely.

And, tragically, seven children and teenagers die every day in the United States from gunshot wounds.

Advice for parents

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that the best way to prevent children from gun-related injuries and death is not to own a gun. However, people who choose to have firearms in their home should adhere to these child-protecting safety rules:

  • Never allow your child access to your gun(s). No matter how much in­struction you may give him or her, a youngster in the middle years is not mature and responsible enough to handle a potentially lethal weapon. 
  • Never keep a loaded gun in the house or the car. 
  • Guns and ammunition should be locked away safely in separate locations in the house; make sure children don’t have access to the keys. 
  • Guns should be equipped with trigger locks.

The organization also recommends that parents talk to the parents of their children’s friends to find out if they have guns in their homes and, if so, to confirm that those guns are unloaded, locked up and inaccessible to children.

FMI: You’ll find the study and the editorial on JAMA Pediatrics’ website. You can read more about the AAP’s recommendations for gun safety in the home on that organization’s website.