Our world is consumed by violence and it’s only getting worse. While international horrors have taken center stage lately, closer-to-home killings at Sandy Hook and other places have faded into the public’s background. But I haven’t forgotten. We all, all of us, bemoan our violent culture and want to do everything we can to ameliorate it, to make it go away.
There are some ways we can do that. They’re just not popular. Gun control is badly needed, but the gun lobby has legislators firmly in their deep pockets. Still, there are things we CAN control.
As a woman who didn’t have children, parenting decisions sometimes seem inexplicable. Then again, I look at the world around me and wonder if I would make different decisions. Still, I feel like a stranger in a strange land because some things seem so obvious to me.
My exposure to parenting issues comes from reading blogs, from my friends and from the children of my friends who are now well into parenting. My role as “observer” gives me some strengths, as well as some weaknesses. There is always benefit to an outside view, a fresh eye. But I lack the perspective of someone who’s been on the front, so to speak. Still, I’ve got my thoughts and here they are.
Concerns I have center on parenting as it involves three popular culture vehicles: television shows depicting adult and violent content, and films and video games with those themes. The environment for all this is the internet, where information of all kinds–fact, fiction and fable–float around for kids to pick up and… and do what with? That’s the question. It’s one parents need to take very seriously and I’m not sure most take it seriously enough.
I taught for a year in a college for bright, digitally-oriented kids, many of whom were developing their own video games. Some of the gentlest souls developed some of the goriest games. I know, because I played some with them to learn what it was like. Armed with medieval weaponry for the game, I slashed and cut and hacked at people, because score was kept by killings.
And in fact, that’s what social scientists at Iowa State University found when they studied effects. High levels of exposure to violent video games “predicted aggressive personality measures of anger, hostility and aggressive and violent behavior.” Is this a surprise to anyone?
Why are children playing these games in such large numbers?
Or how about this Orlando Sentinel guest column from Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment:
A new study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that adults who repeatedly view scenes of extreme violence or sex makes them more tolerant of such content — and more lenient in allowing children to watch the same….parents were shown clips from movies and then asked about what age a child should be before watching that film. At first, a majority of the respondents’ reactions were that children should be 17 before seeing those films. After watching more clips, parents’ responses grew more lenient, saying similar content was acceptable for children age 14.
The rapid rate at which the parents were desensitized surprised even the scientists. Dan Romer, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the lead author on the study, said, “We expected there to be a certain amount of what we call desensitization,” he says. “But what was so stunning was how clear the pattern was and how dramatic it was. That is certainly cause for alarm. If parents become rapidly desensitized to harmful media content, it’s logical to conclude that children would also become desensitized if they watched the same content.”
This is real folks. And it gives us insight into the kinds of parental behavior–and especially controls — that could make a difference. And yet, I don’t see that happening.
It shocks me when I see so many of kids under 14 going to R movies with their parents, movies that present adult sexual situations, horrific war and criminal violence in very adult situations. Situations set up for a story rather than reality. What can pre-adolescents or even adolescents do with that kind of input? Their very limited life experience gives them no frame of reference to process what they see.
Here’s an example: Every 12-year-old boy I know of has seen the film, American Sniper. In this, I see the ugly hand of peer pressure and the inability of some parents to buck up against it.
But what is it these boys see and even more frightening, what is it they understand from all that killing? Their youth does not prepare them to understand any of this–the world we live in– at any level except the simplest. Some friends’ kids had the benefit of a discussion about the movie with their parents and another adult. By all reports, it was a good discussion. Even so, an explanation and discussion are no substitute for life experience and what kids do with information at that young age is not what they’ll do with it after they mature. They are just too young for this kind of content. Way too young.
Did you read about the two 12-year-old girls in the Midwest who stabbed their friend 19 times in an attempt to kill her after a slumber party? They said they were influenced by the fictional, supernatural character, Slender Man. Whom they believed to be real. Slender Man apparently stalks, abducts and traumatizes children, got broader distribution among kids as a viral video series and is even the subject of an alternate reality game in which kids film fictional experiences with the character and pretend they are real.
Listening to the interrogation tapes of these girls made clear the depth of their belief that this character was real and that they needed to kill their friend. “It was necessary,” said the girl who masterminded the attack.
It was a chilling comment that illustrated just how thin the line is between fantasy and reality for kids that age. Think this sounds unbelievable? Here is a short clip.
Where do they get those ideas? You know where.
Are parents aware of the link between violent media content and kids’ aggression? Are they willing to step up and set limits with kids? To actively parent in some of the hardest ways, knowing that they are fighting peer pressure all the way? Are they willing to make tough decisions? Or would they rather ignore the whole thing, take the easy way out or rationalize?
I know, tough words. But this is a tough situation. If you haven’t heard those interrogation tapes I linked to, you should. They’ll give you a frightening view into how media content and peer pressure influenced young girls so that they nearly killed a friend. They stabbed her 19 times. They felt no remorse. None. Was it even real to them? And if it wasn’t, why not?
These events are not unrelated to the violence we say we want to end. And yet, the chance to make an impact on the level of violence is available to every parent in the country.
I’ll leave you with Tim Winter’s thoughts as he ended his guest column. It’s a call to action that I hope parents will heed:
It is difficult to believe we, as a nation, can make any meaningful progress against senseless real-life horrors that stem from domestic abuse, gun violence, sexual assault or sexual exploitation if our entertainment culture continues to trivialize and be awash in such material. If we are to move forward in a positive direction, we must begin to push back against the tide of harmful images, attitudes and actions that are so ubiquitous in today’s entertainment media. Parents need to be parents, and the entertainment industry must take responsibility for its actions.
I’m interested in what parents have to say.