THE BLOG
05/20/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Access to Violence Alters Boys' Brains

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend TED2014 and I was very excited about what psychologist Phillip Zimbardo had to say. He spoke about how men are failing socially, academically and with women. His TED talk struck a nerve with me.

The debate is on about how we as a nation are failing our boys and men, and many fingers, including Zimbardo's, are pointing to our technology-driven society (namely violent video games and easy access to pornography) and schools that aren't as "boy friendly."

I agree: it is time we step up to the plate and support our boys early on, before they become disengaged men.

Our boys are immersed in technology that is altering their brains.

The shift in our culture toward increased technology time -- television, video games, the Internet, and social media -- is not without consequence.

Whenever you watch anything on television, your imagination pulls you into what you're watching. As a result, you react emotionally as if whatever is happening on television is actually happening to you. Consider that the average American youth spends approximately 50 hours per week in front of some sort of screen or another, whether playing video and computer games or watching television. That's a LOT of screen time, to say the least. Consistent exposure to violent video games, television shows, and movies, as well as pornography, can impact the brain and actually alter its architecture.

According to Dr. John P. Murray, "Viewing behavior in media triggers certain areas of the brain that are associated with 'arousal/attention, detection of threat, episodic memory encoding and retrieval, and motor programming'." Murray's study mapped the amygdala and related brain structures, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to ascertain the neurological changes that resulted from watching violence on television. He concluded that a relationship existed between the chemistry of the brain and violent viewing, which affected both cognitive and motor behavior.

Therefore, when boys are exposed to media violence, it becomes stored in the brain in a manner similar to post traumatic stress disorder memories. Another study by Dr. Craig A. Anderson involving media violence exposure in youth, found that even short term viewing of violence can increase physical and verbal aggression, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. In fact, according to Anderson, frequent exposure to media violence in childhood can lead to aggressive behavior later in life, including physical and spousal abuse.

This research on violent viewing and its effects on children have surprisingly uncovered that chemicals, such as cortisol -- that change the architecture of the brain, including impulse control -- are doing so because children's brains are actually imitating the violence that they are seeing. In a sense the mind is rehearsing and imitating the aggressive behavior viewed. As a result, aggressive behavior and aggressive responses become an acceptable option later on when children are confronted with conflict. Dr. Murray calls this brain behavior "encoding aggressive scripts," and states that the posterior cingulate, a part of the brain that holds emotional trauma, stores these neural images and retrieves them in a manner similar to the flashbacks of traumatic memory, present in post-traumatic stress disorder. And, excessive viewing of video games also impacts brain function in a similar manner.

According to Dr. Vincent Matthews at Indiana University, "Behavioral studies have shown an increase in aggressive behavior after playing violent video games, and what we show is a physiological explanation for what the behavioral studies are showing." Dr. Matthews' research demonstrates brain changes directly related to only two hours of violent viewing daily. The brain changes that Matthew's group saw were similar to those seen in teens with destructive sociopathic disorders.

Dr. Anderson stated, "The most recent thorough review of the research on media violence, by an expert panel convened by the U.S. surgeon general concluded, 'Research on violent television, films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts.' Hundreds of original empirical studies of the link between media violence and aggression have been conducted and numerous reviews of those studies-both narrative and statistical- have come to the same conclusion." Further, they cite a finished study by Kaj Bjorkqvist in which he concluded that "even a single exposure increases aggression in the immediate situation." And longitudinal studies demonstrate that children who played a lot of video games through childhood where more physically aggressive throughout their life.

Our boys are losing critical social skills by being tied to technology.

Throughout my experience as a researcher and educator, and based on the aforementioned scientific research, it stands to reason that the impersonal culture of the internet has the capability of blocking our nation's boys from fulfilling their share of future leadership potential. True social interaction, necessary for adult success in work and in life, isn't being taught to these boys because they are immersed in mostly virtual relationships without consequences. In a way, boys who spend too much time interacting only online and through video games stay immature because they don't get to experience the real consequences of their feelings, thoughts, and actions; they don't learn how to deal. They're not learning the social skills one needs to succeed in the world as a functioning adult.

Our boys are falling behind and dropping out of academics

As boys sink further socially, so too, do they sink academically. A recent Gallup Student Poll suggests that boys have a weaker emotional connection with school as early as fifth grade, and that more than one in four boys are not engaged or actively disengaged in fifth grade.

Some researchers suggest that boys are disengaged and getting lower grades in class because our schools are not "boy-friendly." In their book, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools, Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, sociology professors at Columbia and Ohio State, state that "Boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama, and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these activities are often denigrated as un-masculine."

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, boys and men are falling behind academically and socially:
• Boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school.
• Girls outperform boys academically, from elementary school to graduate school.
• Women receive 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees now.
• Boys are five times more likely to be labeled with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

What can we do about it?

  • If you are the parent of a young boy in elementary or middle school, limit his screen time. Most doctors recommend no more than one or two hours per day. This includes television, cell phones, video games, and tablets.
  • Know what your child is watching. Parents must parent, and that means being aware of what happens in the video games he plays and the shows he watches. It is up to you to ensure the screen time your child is exposed to is appropriate.
  • Communicate with your child's school. It is important for parents and teachers to keep open lines of communication, so that you are made aware of any changes your child exhibits at school, and you can address those changes head on before your child gets lost in the shuffle.
  • Support your son's wishes for school participation without judgment or gender bias. Encourage him to participate in music, arts, and theater programs if he shows an interest.
  • Practice the empathic process. Set aside time to chat with your kids in the kitchen after school or each night, and allow them to share anything about their day with you openly, without judgment or your immediate reaction. This helps build trust, so that when any issues do come up, you know that they already have the confidence in you to share openly and honestly.
  • Engage your child from a young age in play that does not involve technology. Make library, science museum, and museum of natural history visits an important part of your regular family time. Give your child free play time to help develop his imagination and hone his problem solving skills.
  • Model strong in-person relationships that are rich with positive, face-to-face interactions.
  • Parents should allow plenty of time for free play that does not involve technology from the time children are born. The ability to create, learn, and test boundaries within safe limits helps flex the imagination muscles in children, and real-world understanding.

We may not be able to change our education system or the video game industry overnight, but we do have some control as parents to help ensure our own sons do not fall through the cracks.