A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics calls for action to reduce children’s exposure to violent video games and media. The report also calls on the gaming and media industries to create shows and games for children that do not contain violence.

“Children are not only viewing violence, but with virtual reality games they are actively engaging in a realistic and immersive violent experience,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and lead author of the new AAP policy. “A media diet is as important as a food diet. Pediatricians and families need to have thoughtful conversations about a child’s media intake.”

Virtual violence influences child development

Studies over decades have shown a link between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior and thoughts.

“This is settled science—studies have shown a connection between virtual violence and real world aggression,” Christakis said. “Often times when this issue is presented in media, we’ll see one person on TV taking a different perspective. But the science is clear that there is a real world effect.”

The report cites research that shows the typical child will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence, including rape and assault, before middle school. Studies have shown that exposure to violent content can lead to angry feelings and actual or observed aggression.

“The media and gaming industry needs to produce children’s games and entertainment that do not contain violence,” Christakis said. “To keep a game’s appeal and adrenaline rush, game producers resort to intensifying violence and this is affecting our kids.”

He points out that glamorized virtual violence does not show the consequences of real violence—victims who are injured or die as a result of violence and the devastating impact this has on the victims’ families.

Christakis says the hopeful news is that when a child’s media diet is changed to feature more positive content, the results are good.

“Research has shown that a child’s aggressive behavior decreases when violent media is eliminated and replaced with positive content,” he said.

Social media and violence

The report also raises concerns about how social media provides children with unsolicited exposure to acts of violence in the form of videos and photos, in many cases rapidly and in real-time. Some of the violent content comes from current events in war zones or protests.

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, executive director of Digital Health at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of an AAP commentary on social media, says while these videos may provide an opportunity for social engagement and activism in youth, they may also change a child or teen’s sense of safety or anxiety in their community.

“We have to think carefully about how children are being exposed to ongoing violence online,” Swanson said. “Parents should be co-viewing content with their children. We need to discuss the injustices we witness in virtual violence and acknowledge it may affect some children and teens differently if they identify with the victims of violence.”

Report’s recommendations

The AAP offers six specific recommendations as part of its policy:

  • Pediatricians should consider a child’s “media diet” as a part of wellness exams, discussing not just the quantity of media but also the quality.
  • Parents should be mindful of their child’s media consumption, and should co-view media and co-play games with their children.
  • Protect children under age 6 from all virtual violence, because they cannot always distinguish fantasy from reality.
  • Policy-makers should consider legislation to prohibit easy access to violent content for minors and should create a robust and useful “parent-centric” media rating system.
  • Pediatricians should advocate for and help create child-positive media, collaborating with the entertainment industry on shows and games that don’t include violence as a central theme.
  • The entertainment industry should create content that doesn’t glamorize guns or violence, doesn’t use violence as a punch line and eliminates gratuitous portrayals of violence and hateful, misogynistic or homophobic language unless also portraying the impacts of these words and actions.
  • In video games, humans or living targets should never be shot for points.
  • The news media should acknowledge the proven scientific connection between virtual violence and real world aggression and stop portraying the link as controversial.

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