SCIENCE
07/17/2015 07:30 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2015

Why You Shouldn't 'Like' Stories About Violence

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In the wake of mass shootings like the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, media coverage of the violence is all over social media. Often, it focuses on the killer.

If you're sharing or "liking" stories about these crimes on Facebook, you may be inadvertently helping perpetuate the violence -- and new research suggests that kids, in particular, can be led astray by that attention.

"When kids approve of any kind of violent word or statement or gestures or symbols, it really increases the likelihood that they'll go on to commit violent acts in the future," said Dr. Tom Dishion, a psychologist at Arizona State University and the study's lead author. "Kids are very sensitive to the audience."

The Arizona State University research finds that sharing negative or violent news -- and receiving feedback in the form of "likes" and comments -- may beget aggressive behavior in children.

While previous research has shown that exposure to violent media overall can increase aggressive behavior in children, the new study indicates that parents might want to pay particular attention to the way that their kids are engaging with violent news on social media.

The researchers don't know whether the same connection applies to adults. But the study suggests that not "liking" posts about violence on social media may be one way to halt the spread of violence.

Dishion explained by way of example: A person who posts a racist joke on his or her Facebook page and receives lots of likes and positive comments will find it easier to use racist language offline. Similarly, when children who share violence online are essentially told by their peers that they did the right thing, they're more likely to carry out violent deeds in the real world.

Peer approval is highly reinforcing for children -- a phenomenon Dishion refers to as the "Beavis and Butthead effect."

"Kids are very sensitive to peer approval, and they're likely to change their norms and values based on subtle signs of approval -- or even on the opportunity to have an audience," he said.

Dishion emphasizes that the media have a role to play here, too. It's possible that the glamorization of killers -- the most famous recent example being the Rolling Stone cover of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- may inspire mimicry.

"I think it's a good idea to talk more about the victims and less about the perpetrator," Dishion said, adding, "People are very sensitive to media, media attention and now social media."

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