Not a day goes by without hearing about acts of violence. Cyberbullying, rape, domestic violence, school shootings, gang shootings, mass murders…and we’re not talking about violence in war-torn countries half way around the globe, we’re talking about violence in North America. Recent media reports indicate that over the past year, physical and sexual violent acts have increased 50% in major cities in the US and Europe (St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, London). While violence statistics have declined over the past decade, why suddenly are they increasing? TV, movies, videos, music, news, sitcoms, reality shows, and even cartoons, exhibit visually graphic acts of physical and sexual violence, delivered in fast paced and rapid sequencing. It’s almost as if we’ve desensitized ourselves to the extent that we don’t even notice the violence anymore. We live, work, and raise our children in a culture surrounded by physical and sexual violence, which rather than the exception, has increasingly become the norm. What happens when young children’s brains are exposed, repeatedly, to physical and sexual violent imagery? What happens when young teens immerse themselves for long periods in a virtual world depicting frequent repeated acts of rape, torture, and murder? What happens when the ‘watcher’ becomes an active participant in these acts, such as in Grand Theft Auto V where the ‘player’ can actually see their own hands on the victim, or when the ‘player’ becomes fully immersed in the 3-D game? What does it take for virtual violence to become a child’s waking reality? This article will demonstrate a causal relationship between what children watch at an early age and their resulting behavior, or who they become, and act as a warning to parents everywhere, to stop this trend toward exposing young children to physical and sexual media violence.
My son was 6 and the year 1987 when he was first exposed to violent media imagery. I took Matt to see RoboCop, and before the movie even started, I was tapped on the shoulder by a well-intended patron asking “Are you sure your son is old enough to view this…you do know it’s violent”? I responded with “He’ll be fine”, and then turned to Matt and asked him what he thought, should we leave? Of course he said no, so we stayed, and RoboCop was violent. As we watched the screen, peeking through hands held over our eyes, we gradually began to steel ourselves to be able to view more and more of the killing, blood and gore, telling each other that the blood wasn’t real, and it was just a movie, all made up to scare us. By the end of the movie, Matt and I were proud that we could keep our eyes open, and not grab each other’s arm in fright. I remember feeling petrified leaving the theatre, like the virtual world we had inhabited for less than 2 hours, followed us into our reality, out to the car, to our home, into our beds. I remember even the next morning, carrying some of the visual imagery through the next day, telling myself that Matt would be fine, that life was good, and everything would be okay. Well Matt was fine, but we did experience some rocky times as a family growing up adjusting to increasing exposure to media violence. Our experience was 25 years ago, what about now?
Media violence isn’t new, and many adults tell me they played violent video games, and they are ‘okay’. But what has changed, markedly is increased durations of media violence exposure, as well as intensity of violent content. 25 years ago, exposure to media violence by young children was rare, with total media exposure averaging less than 2 hours per day. Violent media viewing was generally supervised, and delivered in a passive (watched) and slow paced mode. Today’s children use an average of 7.5 hours per day entertainment media with only 30% of those children’s media supervised by their parents (Kaiser Foundation 2010). Media exposure is now often active, meaning the user is more immersed in and more participatory and interactive in the gaming experience (Dunckley 2015), and the media is delivered to the viewer in fast paced mode with up to one screen change every second (Christakis 2011). Screens are become larger, video game graphics are closer to the ‘real thing’, and three dimensional gaming platforms are hitting the retail market, all causing the ‘immersion factor’ to become more realistic and intense. Studies show this increased duration of time spent gaming, as well as increased intensity in virtual violence, is resulting in increased number of episodes and intensity of aggression and explosive violence by gamers (Grabmeier 2015).
In order to comprehend how visual imagery at an early age can influence child behavior, it’s important to understand how the brain develops in conjunction with its surrounding environment. At birth, babies begin laying down visual images and experiences from their environment in the form of pathways and connections that will be with them their whole life. This process is most rapid during an infant’s first two years where the brain triples in size. As time goes on, there is a process of growth in synaptic connections, coinciding with pruning of neurons which are not used. To achieve maximal efficiency, the brain strengthens the pathways it perceives are needed, and prunes those that aren’t. This developmental process is wholly dependent on the present environmental stimuli (or lack thereof) of the child. A child who is exposed to an enriched environment with sufficient movement, touch, human connection, and nature, grows diverse and diffuse brain connections designed to optimize motor skills, sensory processing, functional relationships, intelligence, adaptability, and eventual success. On the other hand, a child who is deficit of healthy activities, who is sedentary, overstimulated with technology, neglected, and isolated, grows a brain wired for high speed, impulsivity, inattention, addiction, and violence. So, how does what we watch, form who we become later in life?
The visual system is the first part of the brain to develop in infants, with the occipital lobe comprising almost 20% of the whole brain. Consequently, the human visual system is very powerful in detecting, retaining, and replaying visual stimuli. Much of the infant’s experience of the world is attained through the eyes, and what children watch will be with them forever. The power of the visual system is best illustrated in research by Stickgold in 2000 who exposed youth with amnesia (no memory) to a game called Tetra’s, where the players stacked falling combinations of colorful blocks. The amnesiacs who played Tetras were able to describe Tetra’s visual images at sleep onset, demonstrating that remote memories can influence the images from recent waking experience. Stickgold’s research implies that the visual system can retain visual imagery, regardless of the absence functional memory. Additional research by Karolien Poels in 2015 demonstrated that through intensive video game play, elements from the game world can trigger thoughts and imagery outside the game world, influencing the perception and interpretation of stimuli in everyday life. Could a child’s immersion in the virtual world be so pervasive as to become that child’s reality?
Poel’s research explains a phenomenon I witnessed in a kindergarten classroom where two 5 year old boys were sitting at a table playing ‘imaginary’ video games on ‘imaginary’ tablets. When asked to help clean up the classroom by their teacher, these two boys responded “We can’t hear you because we’re gaming with earbuds”. Intrigued, I told the boys that I was going to ‘remove’ their imaginary tablets if they didn’t go help their teacher, and while one of the boys smiled and got up to help, the other proceeded to start to scream and cry, saying “You can’t take away my iPad…I’m going to call the police on you”! At the young age of 5 years, this boy had a level of immersion into the virtual world that was so strong, he was triggered into a tantrum state when threatened with removal of his imaginary gaming device. A game that wasn’t being played, on a device that wasn’t even there…or was it? What Stickgold’s and Poels’ research indicate is that the visual imagery from physical or sexually violent media content, is imbedded into the neuronal architecture of the developing brain, available for retrieval and replay at any time.
Some parents report they think that babies and young children are too young to be affected by screen imagery. Other parents report they think early exposure to screen media is good for developing cognition. While scant studies do show ‘positive’ benefits of early exposure to screens, these studies are industry driven (conducted by the developer) and consequently rife with conflict of interest. Parents must take into account numerous studies showing detrimental effects from early exposure to screens, and consider the peril as well as the promise of technology in their developing child’s life. When determining how to manage technology, parents need to consider a number of factors when setting media rules for their children. Age of first exposure, type of content, and duration of viewing are the big three determinants for a child’s development, health, and future. Connecting what we do now, to what our children will be later, is imperative. Making smart decisions regarding prudent technology use at an early age, is the type of forward thinking that will create sustainable children who will grow up healthy, be employable, and enjoy functional relationships. It’s important for parents to remember that four critical factors for the developing child are movement, touch, human connection, and nature, all which are deficit when using screens. As stated earlier, brain development is rapid in the early years, and these four critical factors are essential not only during the developmental period, but have vast and far reaching implications for later in life.
Dr. Karen Heffler and Dr. Leonard Oestcher recently published a causal model for autism demonstrating that early visual exposure to screen media, as young as 3-6 months of age, can result in a mapping of the brain to prefer screen media to human faces, a preference which can preclude a diagnosis of autism (Heffler 2015). At such a young age, the brain is rapidly carving out ‘neural real estate’ for virtual screens, leaving little behind for real human connection. Well-meaning parents who think passive TV watching, or playing with cell phones and tablets are harmless, are exposing their children to media content that is changing the wiring of the brain, and not is a good way. So what happens when these ‘screen preferred’ neurons, later specify to prefer violent media?
An increasing phenomenon in today’s youth is problematic use of video games and pornography (Voss 2015). Video game and pornography addiction while not recognized as a mental health disorder in North America, in more advanced countries such as China and South Korea who have recognized internet addiction since 2008, are seeing an explosion in youth technology addiction centres (see “China’s Web Junkies” 2014 documentary). As we’ve seen from previous studies (Stickgold 2000, Poels 2015), the human visual system is very advanced, detecting, retaining, and replaying visual stimuli at an extraordinary rate. The question is, do these retained visual images from video games and pornography cause the player to ‘act out’ viewed scenes, resulting in the recently reported surge in societal violence? While all ‘gamers’ are not ‘shooters’, studies do show that all mass shooters are indeed video gamers. The following shooters were all avid gamers, socially isolated, diagnosed with mental illness and on or withdrawing from psychotropic medications – a deadly combination: Dylann Roof (Charleston South Carolina, 9 killed), Aaron Alexis (Washington Navy Yard 2013, 12 killed), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary 2012, 27 killed), James Holmes (Aurora Colorado 2012, 13 killed), Major Nidal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood Texas 2009, 13 killed), Jiverly Wong (Binghampton NY 2009, 13 killed), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech 2007, 32 killed), Jeff Weise (Red Lake School Minnesota, 9 killed), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine Colorado 1999, 13 killed). An excerpt from an article in May 2015 New Yorker magazine written by Karl Ove Knausgaard about Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik who murdered 77 people on July 22, 2011 states “Five years before the massacre, Breivik isolated himself in a room at his mother’s flat; he saw practically no one, refused visits, hardly ever went out, and just sat inside playing World of Warcraft. At some point, this fantasy took over Breivik’s reality, not because he experienced a psychotic break, but because he discovered models of reality that were as uncomplicated and manageable as those of the game, and so, incited by the poser of his fantasies, especially by what they enabled him to become – a knight, a commander, a hero – he decided to bring them to life. He had been a nobody – that is to say, dead – and suddenly he arose on the other side, no longer nobody, because, by virtue of undertaking the inconceivable, which was now conceivable, he would become somebody”. The youngest child I’ve treated for technology addiction was 3 years of age; he was convinced he was Spiderman and when asked a question, would only respond to the name Peter Parker.
36% of U.S. and 48% of Canadian young adults between the ages of 18-30 years are unemployed, not attending school, and living with their parents (Statistics Canada 2012, U.S. Census Bureau 2012). “Doing what?” is a very good question. A recent 2014 CBC Doc Zone documentary “Sext Up Kids” reports that 80% of male teens use pornography. Interviews with these male teen’s girlfriends detailed that the males were expecting their girlfriends to act out “disgusting” sexual scenes that these male had recently viewed on porn sites. The girls went on to state that their boyfriends were increasingly using crude language, exhibiting derogatory behavior toward all women, and were using an increasing amount of violence during sex. All the girls interviewed reported these actions by their boyfriends to be relatively new and alarming trends on the dating scene, and pointed to increased use of pornography and video games to be the origin of their boyfriend’s physical and sexually violent behavior. No one will dispute that we now live in a ‘rape culture’, as evidenced by an explosion of rape crisis centres in high schools and on university campuses. While crime statistics for North America show an overall decline in crime, violent crimes such as rape, domestic violence, school shootings, gang shootings, and sexual molestation of children have risen sharply (National Crime Victimization Survey, Statistics Canada).
What you watch, is who you become. The observed rise in violent crime is clearly a result of the rise in both graphic content and duration of viewing of physical and sexually violent media. As children are exposed to violent media younger and younger, we should expect violent crime to continue to increase. The following guidelines for technology usage by young children should be made available to all parents, and strictly adhered to. These guidelines can be taught to children in daycares, preschools and school settings, along with informative literature sent home to parents. Something can be done.
The following Technology Use Guidelines for children and youth were developed by Cris Rowan pediatric occupational therapist and author of Virtual Child, Dr. Andrew Doan neuroscientist and author of Hooked on Games and Dr. Hilarie Cash, Director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program and author of Video Games and Your Kids, with contribution from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society in an effort to ensure sustainable futures for all children.
Dunckley, V. Reset Your Child’s Brain – A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time. New World Library, Novato, California. 2015.
Grabmeier, J and Bushman B. Immersed in Violence: How 3-D gaming affects video game players. Ohio State University New Room. Retrieved from https://news.osu.edu/news/2014/10/19/%E2%80%8Bimmersed-in-violence-how-3-d-gaming-affects-video-game-players/ on August 13, 2015.
Heffler K. F. and Oestreicher O. M. Causational model of autism: Audiovisual brain specialization in infancy competes with social brain networks. Med Hypotheses (2015); retrieved on July 31, 2015 from http://www.medical-hypotheses.com/article/S0306-9877(15)00238-8/abstract
Kaiser Foundation Report. 2010. Retrieved on April 30, 2010 from http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/
Poels, K., Ijsselsteijn, W. A., de Kort, Y. World of Warcraft, the aftermath: How game elements transfer into perceptions, associations and (day)dreams in the everyday life of massively multiplayer online role-playing game plyers. New Media and Society. 2015: 17(7); 1137-1153.
Stickgold, R., Malia A., Maguire, D, Roddenberry, D., and O’Connor M. Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics. Science. October 2000: 290(5490); 350-353. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/content/290/5490/350 on August 13,
Voss, A. D. O., Cash, H., Hurdiss, S., Bishop, F., Klam W. P., and Doan, A. P. Case Report: Internet Gaming Disorder Associated With Pornography Use. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2015: 88; pp.1-xxx.
Cris Rowan, BScOT, BScBi, SIPT, AOTA Approved Provider
Pediatric occupational therapist, CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc., and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”