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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

Violence on TV and How It Can Affect Your Children

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Studies show that violence on television does have an adverse affect on children and the way they think and act. This is true not only for young children, but some recent studies indicate that watching violence on television can even impact adults.

We know that for the most part, children learn from both experience and social learning or role modeling. Therefore, when children, especially young children, see violence on television, they have a difficult time differentiating between what is real or what is make believe, and tend to emulate or copy what they are seeing. Furthermore, there is a chemical change in the brain, similar to that which is seen in post-traumatic stress disorder; if enough violence is viewed, the brain reacts as if the person doing the viewing has actually been abused. This is especially true if the violence is one sided, as in the case of sadistic violence. Now add to this the fact that children who watch violence on television have brains that are still developing, and you can see how really dangerous TV viewing can be.

We know, for instance, that children are psychologically affected by having less empathy, a characteristic we see in bullies; that they are more likely to use aggressive strategies to solve their problems rather than to search for more peaceful methods of conflict resolution; that they tend to be more reactive rather then proactive -- relying more on knee-jerk reactions to resolve frustrations; and finally, that they appear to be more fearful of social relationships which make them bite before they can be bitten. This perception of danger, when coupled with a lack of empathy, can lead to sadistic behavior. Moreover, children seeing too much violence on TV are more likely to be argumentative, as they have dispensed with the slow caution of inhibitors. These children act out in class and are more likely to be the class bully. Since they seem to be less patient than their counterparts, studies show that children who watch too much violence on TV appear to be more unwilling to cooperate, and delay gratification. Therefore, they seem to demonstrate a strong sense of entitlement.

In addition, there are other potential dangers to violent TV viewing and one of the most disturbing is that young children become more violent themselves as teenagers, and tend to have more encounters with the law as adults.

What can parents do about it? Parents have a number of remedies at their disposal and they include:

1. Parents have the power to moderate their children's TV viewing. Parents are entitled to parent and that includes checking in every once and a while to monitor what their children are actually watching on TV.
2. Parents can and should establish house rules for TV viewing. This means how many hours a week, where TV is to be watched, as well as what kind of programming.
3. Parents should supervise their children's TV viewing by watching at least one episode of whatever their children's selections are so that the parents decide if the programming is appropriate.
4. Parents should monitor news programs. Repetitive violence in the news is very disturbing to a young mind. Such violent overload can be directly linked to changes in the brain similar to that seen in abuse. In fact, these changes can actually be viewed on an MRI.
5. Parents should view current events on television with their children so that they can explain any confusing or inappropriate material to their children.
6. Just say "no" to offensive programming. That is what it is to be a parent.
7. Encourage your children to spend their free time in ways other then TV watching, such as reading a good book during the week and watching TV only on the weekends; outdoor sports; arts and crafts; journal writing and playdates with peers can alter, and even break, the hypnotic TV habit.
8. Boundaries are important to you and your children. Set them by creating new models for family time that are interactive rather than passive.
9. Show your children the inspirational part of TV, such as the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, Biography, and Nova.
10. Finally, parents must be what they want to see. Modeling is an essential part of parenting, and since we know that violence on TV negatively affects adults as well, lead your family to healthier viewing and happier living together.