The next time you take your kids to the pediatrician, the doctor will ask the usual questions about their eating and exercise habits. But there may be a new inquiry added to the lineup that goes something like this: "How much violent media is your child exposed to?"
It's a valid concern because these days, violent media isn't limited to video games or movies kids may watch. Though that's definitely something to consider, as 97 percent of teens play video games, according to the American Psychological Association. And in the year 2000, every G-rated movie contained violence, as did 60 percent of prime time television shows.
But as recent mass shootings and terror attacks around the globe have proved, just watching the news can expose kids to violent images and ideas. And with virtual reality headsets becoming more and more affordable, children may soon be fully immersed in a violent experience, such as being dropped into a war zone.
Which is why the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recently released a new policy statement about the effects of virtual violence on children's attitudes and behaviors along with a set of guidelines for parents on age-appropriate "media diets." "Like food diets, media diets can be healthy or unhealthy, balanced or imbalanced, or healthy in quality but unhealthy in quantity," the statement says.
According to the AAP, decades of research and hundreds of studies have proven a strong association between screen violence and real-world aggression. Just how solid is the connection? "It is greater than the association between secondhand smoke exposure and lung cancer as well as breast self-examination and reduced risk of death from cancer. Yet many municipalities have banned smoking because of its risks, and most clinicians advise women to perform regular self-exams," writes Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, lead author of the statement.
If that doesn't make you understand how serious the issue is, maybe this quote from the AAP's new statement will:
In 1998, the most comprehensive assessment of screen violence was completed. It estimated that the typical child will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence (including rape and assault) before middle school. The 1998 report was limited to television, which was appropriate at the time, because it was the primary platform exposing children to violence. Today’s children experience screen violence on many different platforms, including computers, video games, and touch-screen devices.
It takes a village
The AAP isn't placing the responsibility for taming kids' media diets solely on parents. They're calling on all doctors, lawmakers, the entertainment industry and media outlets themselves to step up to the plate, too. Here's how:
Policymakers should consider laws that provide parents with more specific information about the content of all forms of media, as well as develop and implement a "parent-centric" rating system.
The entertainment industry should not glorify violence and weapons or make either look "normal." Violence shouldn't be used for laughs, the AAP says, and when it's portrayed, "it should include the pain and loss suffered by the victims and perpetrators."
Pediatricians should be leaders in this push by "advocating for more child-friendly media" and working with the entertainment industry to develop those child-friendly shows and games. And they should talk to parents about kids' "media diets" during annual checkups.
The news media should acknowledge the connection between on-screen violence and behavioral aggression the same way they acknowledge the link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, the AAP says.
Parents should play games with kids to get a sense of what the games entail. Ideally, video games shouldn't use human targets or reward points for killing, the AAP recommends. However, children under age 6 can't distinguish fantasy from reality, so they should be protected from watching violence of any kind on any platform, the AAP says.