Why do different kids respond differently to media violence?

Michael Rich Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston answers your questions about media use. Last week, he gave tips on how to limit your kids’ computer time in today’s media-filled world.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: My boys, now 15 & 17, are so different. I’ve noticed that my two kids can watch the same violent programs and, depending on each child’s nature, they respond differently. Is it true that after viewing violent programs, some children will behave more aggressively while some children become more fearful? If yes, can you explain how that happens? Any chance that some children are not affected at all?
Variations on Violence in Glencoe, IL

A: Dear Variations on Violence,

Different kids will absolutely respond differently to different material, and there are many reasons for these variations, not all of them easy to identify. Some reasons have to do with age, some with temperament, and some with what else is going on in a child’s life, but on the whole, there are three effects to watch for:

  • Desensitization (or coming to accept violence as a normal part of life) – Almost everyone experiences this effect.  When people see a lot of violence, whether it’s in the media or in real life, their understanding of the world shifts.  The more violence they see, the less “out of place” it seems.
  • Fear and anxiety – This may happen more often in younger children.  Seeing violence all over the news, in movies, and in video games can lead kids to believe that the world is a very dangerous place and they are potential victims every time they leave their houses.
  • Increased aggression -This is the least common, but most talked about, effect.  In the media world, violence is often used as a way to solve problems.  Furthermore, the negative consequences of this violence are not often shown.  When kids see this over and over again, they may learn to solve problems using physical violence.

Unfortunately, there is no good way of predicting which kids will react in which ways, and that makes prevention tricky.  But given that most people will experience at least one of these three effects, reducing exposure to media violence can only help.

You also asked if there are kids who aren’t affected at all.  I would say that they are few and far between.  Since most kids are able to socially connect with others, they also have the capacity to know how others are hurt and feel sympathy for them.  I would recommend assuming that your kids are affected in at least one of the ways I talked about, and then adjust how much and what they watch based on that assumption.  Since adjusting teenagers’ habits is often difficult because of their independence level, you may want to help them to question what they see by teaching them media literacy.
See also What can I do about media violence?

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

Do you have a question about your child’s media use? Ask the Mediatrician today!