In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, people are finally motivated to look more closely how society fosters aggression.
Some blame technology and the media—pointing a finger at violent video games and violent television shows and movies.
First, it should be said that there is not sufficient evidence proving video games or movies or television cause violence. In fact, it could be the case that those predisposed for other reasons to become violent flock to such games and immerse themselves in them in a different way than others—much like alcohol is not a terrible problem, unless you are an alcoholic, in which case it can be catastrophic, even fatal, for you and for others.
It could even turn out to be the case (though I doubt it) that exposing potentially violent people to video games that allow them to vent could prevent actual shootings. Again, rigorous, scientific data is missing.
From my perspective, having worked and trained in private, public and even VA medical settings, I agree with the great work of Marshall McLuhan, who wrote Understanding Media, and concluded the “medium is the message,” meaning that interacting with technology that draws the user “into it” is the real issue, because that media is dehumanizing.
Hence, his theories would predict that ClubPenguin.com, in which children adopt fake, animated pets and must “take care of them” is as much (or more) of a problem than a violent video game. Why? Because it plays upon a child’s natural capacity for empathy, in an entirely fake setting, in which no real, living creature benefits from it, and could, thereby, help extinguish it. The same could certainly be said for SecondLife.com, where people become their own cartoon-like “avatars” and interact with other cartoon-like people—which may dilute their humanity.
So, too, for Facebook, where people have hundreds or thousands of “friends” who are not really their friends, and profiles that say nothing of their real-life suffering and real emotional needs (other than sexual), thus diminishing the notion of friendship and diminishing the notion of what it means to be human.
Yet it is hard to see what good and essential might come to young people from violent video games and movies and TV. Perhaps it develops courage, at some level, but that seems dubious. Perhaps it helps them confront fear, but there would seem to be plenty of time for that, and a very high chance they never find themselves in a war zone, or fighting a Ninja or trying to escape the mob.
Where to start
So, how can children who have been exposed to violent content and are used to playing such games and watching such media be helped to dial it back? How can we insulate our kids from it?
I think we as parents have to be loving and be bold—which so often, for parents, amounts to the same thing. We have to be willing to say “no” and mean it to content we worry over. That should be enough to trigger action—the worry.
As I said, the scientific data isn’t really there yet to back up the concern. So we should do with such content what we would do if we had turned a blind eye toward alcohol being consumed by our kids—find it in the house and throw it in the garbage, and then explain it won’t be back in the house, period.
Let your kids know that you won’t even exchange the used games for credit at a store because you wouldn’t poison another family’s kids. And, you won’t peddle the junk on eBay because you’re not a drug pusher.
The same goes for movies that seem to offer little upside in the way of life lessons and mostly just play on the human fascination with bloodshed: You tell your kids those movies aren’t on the play list anymore, either in the cinema, in the house or on their computers, because there is a concern they could be “bad for them.”
Again, the concern is enough. Most of us are parents, not research scientists. And I believe researchers would be hard-pressed to theorize any damage likely to come from refraining from viewing or using violent media.
Get them outside
So, there you have it. “First, do no harm.” That’s the Hippocratic Oath for doctors and could be a decent oath for parents.
No doubt, this will cause anger or frustration in some children, but most will get over it pretty quickly, and the ones with a special, abiding interest in such content will struggle more, but need our parental resolve more. In this calculus, the ones who seem to badly “need” their media/technology/violence fix are no different than alcoholics; they are already addicted and in need of detox.
I learned long ago that the patients who protest the most about giving up alcohol or marijuana are the ones who should give it up. They’re the ones with underlying emotional issues that they are desperately trying to cover up with a substance (which is no different than trying to cover them up with computer gaming, the Internet or too much TV). And trying to cover up emotional issues just never works. It just allows them to fester underground.
In case you miss it, the key here is to now—as in today—see technology and media, whether violent or not (but, probably, especially if it is) as a drug and to do the right thing for our sons and daughters who are addicted—get them off of it. Deal with the fallout. Stand tall for what you believe in.
What are some antidotes to technology and media turning our kids into people without empathy? Pets, pools and pals, for starters. I don’t have the data, but I would bet kids with dogs and cats are insulated a bit from emotional anesthesia. Getting outside—into the water, hiking in the mountains or playing on a baseball diamond — connects kids with their bodies and grounds them in their inherent humanity. And play dates with friends will make them real people—even if they argue with one another half the time. At least when it isn’t always fun, it will be real frustration they experience and real anger, and the real need to work things out and be friends, again.
No doubt you will get a lot of “whys” from your kids. Try this out: “Because I love you, and I think those things are bad for you. That’s about it. Because all the facts aren’t in yet about the way those games or movies could hurt you. You may disagree, but right now I have to make the decisions.”
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.