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Apple makes a splash with gun emoji replacement. Will it make us safer?

Apple – without explaining the reason for the change – is replacing its gun emoji with a water pistol.

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    This is what Apple's new water pistol emoji character will look like.
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Apple has entered the gun control debate – without a bang.

The tech company announced Monday that the gun emoji will be replaced by a water pistol emoji.

Apple gave no explanation for the change, but the shift does come a year after the organization New Yorkers Against Gun Violence launched a campaign to #DisarmTheiPhone. Could decreasing the depiction of guns in such popular images really decrease gun violence?

The question has long been debated around the depiction of violence in video games, movies and television, and toy guns for young children. 

In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement regarding the influence of media on children's behavior and perception of violence. 

"Every person involved was once a child," AAP Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Karen Remley said of violent events splashed across the news in a statement. "Through this new effort, we will confront the violence in children's lives and its root causes. We don't yet know where this conversation will lead us, we just know we need to act."

A 1998 report found that an average child would have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television before middle school. And, as the AAP report points out, there are now many more platforms (like computers, video games, tablets, and other devices) on which children can be exposed to or engage with violent images.

But experts aren't in agreement that when children see violence in the media it causes aggression. As Steven Schlozman, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston told The Christian Science Monitor in July, there may be a correlation, but that doesn't necessarily mean causation.

Both the AAP policy statement and Dr. Schlozman point out that every child is different, so what one child might understand is just fantasy play, another might struggle to distinguish from reality.

"There is nothing inherently good or bad about kids playing with toy guns," Daniel Stauber, who specializes in treating children and adolescents at Community Psychological Consultants in Indianapolis, told The Indianapolis Star in 2012. "It all depends on the child."

But age might play a factor, suggest Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., and Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, in a 1999 article about violence-related toys for the Monitor:

The toys channel children's play – a central vehicle for learning during the early years – into narrow, more violent scripts. Children accept at face value what these toys seem to be saying: Violence is fun, violence is exciting, violence doesn't hurt. You can use violence to solve problems with others.

These toys and their merchandizing campaigns lay the foundation for the violent behavior we see among youths. The toys and the lessons children learn from them as they play desensitize children to violence from an early age and prime their appetites for the violent video games, movies, and other media.

And, as the co-authors of "Before Push Comes to Shove" write, many of these toys are marketed to children ages 4 and up.

Still, parents have been divided on whether they are encouraging violence by allowing their children to play with toy guns, for example.

"Guns aren't the problem, people are," Anne Lewis, who with her husband, Jon, has 10 children, told The Indianapolis Star in 2012. "If you teach your children a respect for life and others, then guns are only toys to kids at this age."

Mary Anne Bethel, an Indianapolis mother of two boys ages 8 and 9 at the time told the Star, "I cringe when I even see a kid shooting a toy gun at another kid." Her sons have never owned a toy weapon. "People can say there is no connection," she said, "but toy guns are the same as real guns. They kill people – even if it is only in the kid's imagination."

The squirt gun emoji will replace the pistol emoji when Apple rolls out over 100 "new and redesigned emoji characters" as part of the iOS 10 update for iPhone and iPad users. Apple highlighted the more gender diverse set of emojis that will be in the update in the press release rather than the new water gun. "This exciting update brings more gender options to existing characters, including new female athletes and professionals, adds beautiful redesigns of popular emoji, a new rainbow flag and more family options."

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