videoGameViolence in the media may desensitize children

By Maeve O’Brien, ’16

Violence is everywhere. With the push of a button or flip of a switch, a morbid image of murder or brutality is splattered across a screen for a child to observe. This may seem concerning because, as the child ages, he or she gradually becomes more desensitized to violence.

As violent video games, television shows and movies grow in popularity, concerns have been raised about the negative repercussions of the overexposure of disturbing images involving death and destruction to children.

According to former West Point psychology professor Lt. Col. David Grossman, when children under the age of six or seven observe graphic images on a television screen, their brain may register the situation as reality.

“To have a child of three, four, or five watch a ‘splatter’ movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes,” Grossman said.

Furthermore, the Media Education Foundation found that by the time the average child is eighteen years old, he or she will have witnessed over 200,000 acts of violence and over 16,000 murders through the media. Somewhere along the way, children stop being so disturbed by these atrocities because they are seemingly normal. The repetition allows the child to become numb to such incidents.

Brad J. Bushman of University of Michigan and Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University published a study called “Comfortably Numb” that linked violence in the media to decreased helping behavior towards victims in an emergency situation.

“If film is a drug, then violent film content might make people ‘comfortably numb’ (borrowing the words of Pink Floyd). Specifically, exposure to blood and gore in the media might make people numb to the pain and suffering of others,” Bushman and Anderson wrote. “One negative consequence of such physiological desensitization is that it may cause people to be less helpful to those in need.”

The experiment was composed of two studies. The first involved subjects playing a violent or nonviolent video game and then later witnessing an injury. Their response to the situation was observed. The second involved timing how long it took for regular moviegoers to help an injured woman at a movie theatre at the end of both violent and nonviolent movies. The study hypothesized that in both cases, recent exposure to violence would decrease helping behavior.

The results supported the hypothesis. “In Study 1, violent video games known to desensitize people caused decreases in helping-related behavior, perceptions, and cognitions. In Study 2, violent movies delayed helping in a wholly naturalistic setting,” the study wrote.

In simple terms, desensitized people may not recognize violence, register it as an emergency or sympathize enough with an injured person. They might not be able to realize the severity of the injury, and are thus incapable of responding appropriately.

Another root of the issue is that as the television shows and video games seem to be becoming more violent, the children audience seems to be growing in size and decreasing in age.

UAHS English teacher Meredith Niekamp has to be wary of what her children are viewing during movies or on television.

“Of course parents can control access to these types of media at young ages,” Niekamp said. “But even then, there is a great deal of societal pressure to allow access to certain movies—even books.”

Methods such as brutalization and operant conditioning are used in military camps to desensitize soldiers to killing others. This kind of psychological training isn’t confined to the boot camps, but has diffused towards all channels of the media, available at any time. Children who are flooded with such graphic content virtually may not realize the gravity of death and violence in reality.

Image caption: A teenager plays a violent video game. The graphic images displayed in video games can desensitize children over time.

Photo courtesy of Flickr