To cool off a hot argument, sometimes it needs to be turned upside down. That may well happen in the national dispute over media violence if enough Americans heed a new study that reverses the terms of that debate.
The study, by researchers in Seattle and published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found that young children who are encouraged to watch TV programs that depict kindness, respect, and cooperation are more likely to express those traits than kids who watch everyday TV fare that includes fictional violence.
Two other surprising results of the study are worth noting: Low-income boys, who tend to watch the most television, benefited the most in displaying empathy after watching nonviolent shows. And many of the parents who were guided on what kind of pro-social content to watch and how to avoid violent shows asked that such advice continue even after the study.
Since the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, President Obama has sought to boost research on possible links between gun violence and media such as video games. Dozens of violent video games were found in the home of Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people in the Newtown, Conn. mass shooting. And the National Rifle Association, perhaps to deflect attention away from concern over gun regulations, placed part of the blame for gun violence on video game companies.
Yet restricting such video games was always going to be difficult. In 2011, the Supreme Court overturned a California law that aimed to do just that. The justices, citing a lack of evidence that playing video games leads to violent behavior, were reluctant to curb a First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
What’s more, media researchers differ over how to define aggression or fictional violence. Even if a standard can be found, a 2007 study by the Federal Communications Commission found more depiction of violence in the Disney animated cartoon “The Little Mermaid” than in a documentary about the Civil War.
The best way to curb violent media is to overwhelm it with shows and games that are equally entertaining and help children imitate healthy social behaviors. Parents need more encouragement to find such media and to guide their children in using them.
Since the 1970s, TV broadcasters have greatly increased the number of high-quality, pro-social shows for children. But the same level of "Sesame Street"-like quality is not yet true for the video game industry. If Americans create a demand for it, the $60 billion global industry may measure up.
The Seattle study, which tracked 617 families with kids between the ages of 3 and 5, didn’t try to reduce the TV viewing time in the homes. Indeed, the average preschooler in America watches an estimated 4.1 hours of television and other media each day, according to a 2011 study. Rather, the researchers encouraged half of the parents to help their kids watch shows like “Dora the Explorer” while the other half were used as a control group. The children clearly mimicked what they saw.
The nation’s gun debate should be an opportunity for parents, community groups, and perhaps government to advocate for better nonviolent and uplifting entertainment in all the media now available to children. Advocacy groups such as Common Sense Media already provide such guidance to parents.
The number of media outlets available to children will only keep rising; it is likely the average number of hours of children using them will keep rising as well. The quality must increase with it. Gun violence may be reduced if media for children teach them the opposite of violent behavior.