Recently, six-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim succumbed to injuries after being beaten up by an eight-year-old in Hyderabad. The boy who beat the younger child did not understand the implications of his actions. When questioned, he asked, “Mar gaya matlab kya hai?” (What does it mean, that he died?)
This clearly indicates that children’s understanding of violence and its implications on others, need not correspond with that of adults. While this is an extreme example, it is a reminder to seriously think about the kind of violence that our children are regularly exposed to, especially the visual media such as films, television and video games.
Studies have indicated that before the age of four, children often do not distinguish between fact and fiction. Hence, exposure to virtual violence from such a vulnerable age may end up normalizing it for them. This normalization is aided by the fact that in children’s media, violence is shown in a ‘justifiable’ light – it is a means for conflict resolution where the good guy uses violent means to “knock off the bad guy”. This may encourage children to think that it is okay to resort to violent means when they feel threatened.
Further, this can also desensitize children to others’ pain and suffering the lead them to believe that the world is generally a dangerous place.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics, formulated a policy on “effects of virtual violence on children’s attitudes and behaviours” based on about 400 researches. After summarizing results of these studies on the subject, the policy statement concludes that there is a substantial relationship between exposure to violent media and aggressive behaviour, thoughts, angry feelings and physiologic arousal in children.
The statement also said that exposure to violence was becoming an inherent part of American children’s media consumption – so much so that an average child would have seen “8,000 murders and 1,00,000 other acts of violence (including rape and assault) before middle school”.
While the above numbers are alarming, they belong to a 1998 study when television was main source of virtual violence. However, with the advent of internet and a variety of platforms, children’s exposure to virtual violence has increased even further.
In India too, the there is an increase in the violence portrayed in the media. These include superhero films such as Iron Man, Avengers, Thor, The Incredibles to seemingly innocuous cartoons where violence is shown in comical light such as Tom & Jerry, Ben 10, Chota Bheem.
An Indian study called ‘Media Violence & Aggression among Adolescents: Media Literacy as an intervention’ describes the concept of KGOY or Kids Grow Up Young. A psychiatrist attributes this to the fact that children have the answers to all their queries available on different forms of media. However, there is no one to monitor whether these answers are holistic or age-appropriate.
The daily “media diet” of contemporary children is infused with violent imagery which may not be perceived as outright threatening but may still affect children’s real-life behaviour.
Most people tend to subscribe to the “third person effect” where they think their own children are immune to the effect of virtual violence, which only affects a small fraction of the general population. However, even if that were true, if 2% of the people who watch a violent film are likely to display real-life aggression, it would translate to 4 lakh of 20 million viewers – which is enough cause for people to take notice of the situation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents watch the cartoons and films children watch and co-play videogames with them to gage what children are exposed to. This specially applies to children below six years of age because for them reality and fantasy may merge to make virtual violence appear very real.
However, experts also recommend that when parents should handle these situations delicately and not shout at the children if they don’t take the selective censorship well. They should instead be frank with them and tell them why the show is bad for them honestly and provide alternate activities like outdoor games.
For pediatricians, it is recommended that they advocate for “child-positive” media by collaborating with the child entertainment industry. Further, the statement also says that acknowledging the relationship between virtual violence and aggressive behaviour in mainstream media is key to tackle the issue.