MomsGetReal Expert Contributor Dr. Tali Shenfield

There is little doubt that violence is part of the fabric of life for the human race, whether in the form of war, criminal activity, interpersonal conflict or family squabbles. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. In recent years, violent activity seems to have increased, especially among young people. The causes for these violent tendencies among young people have been the subject of a significant number of research studies over the past 30 years, but the landscape keeps changing with technology.

There are a number of factors to take into account when assessing the effect of media violence on children’s behavior. Among these are poverty, exposure to actual real-life violence either at home or in the community, substance abuse and a variety of psychiatric disorders. But even with all of these factors, as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry points out in a recent article (click link to download), entitled, “The Impact of Media Violence on Children and Adolescents: Opportunities for Clinical Interventions,” a lot of research suggests a strong correlation between the increased tendency toward violence and the exposure of that child to media violence.

Whether or not a specific cause-and-effect relationship between media violence and violent is ever proven, the factor of exposure to media violence has to be considered, especially given the statistical realities of modern life. Fully 99% of all homes have a TV in them, and more than half of all children have TV in their bedrooms, which means there is a lot of TV viewing without supervision.

Media violence is pervasive. One recent study found that children as young as eight spent as much as 7.5 hours per day consuming media. That’s actually more time than they often spend at school. Some research estimates that 90 percent of movies, 60 percent of TV shows, and 68 percent of video games include some depictions of violence. Some estimate that the typical child will see at least 200,000 violent acts by the time they turn 18, including at least 16,000 murders.

So, how does media violence translate into aggressive behaviour? A number of research studies have shown that, when very young children play with their friends, they will usually imitate some of the aggressive acts they see on their TV programs. Many parents don’t realize that they need to deal with child aggression from very early age. Children under the age of four have difficulty understanding the difference between fantasy and reality, and may see violence as a normal part of life, or even as an acceptable form of conflict resolution. Violence is often used by the “heroes” in many programs to solve problems and vanquish the “bad guys,” and they are frequently rewarded for their violent behavior, thus becoming role models for children.

Child development experts believe they can play a crucial role in curbing the effects of media violence on children. But so can parents. First of all, parents should limit their children to no more than 1-2 hours of television per day, and they should watch with them as much as possible. Parents should also pay attention to television and film ratings, and use the v-chip that comes with all televisions these days, to avoid exposing your children to media violence to the extent possible. Also, be aware that there is a lot of brutally violet material online, without any sort of ratings system available. Be proactive in avoiding exposure to media violence.

When violence occurs on-screen, explain to your children what happens in reality. Point out that in real life there are consequences for violent behavior, even when the violence is committed by someone considered a “hero.” Always have your eye on the clock, and don’t let children, especially the youngest ones, spend too much time watching virtual violence, because the more time they spend immersed in violent content, the greater its impact and influence will be.

Child development professionals also recommend that parents and schools develop programs that teach better conflict resolution skills. Even though the vast majority of children learn early on that hitting someone isn’t an effective way to resolve a disagreement, they should also know that verbal bullying is also a form of violence. Teach children how they can stand up for themselves using words, without having to hit anyone.

In addition to monitoring levels of exposure to media violence, parents should also monitor behavior the child displays suggesting aggressiveness. Knowing how to keep the influence of violence to a minimum is important, but so is knowing what to do when a child acts up, regardless of the reason. Jumping to a conclusion that a child’s aggressiveness is due to media violence can sometimes lead parents to overlook other possible problems that may be present, but less apparent. Of course, one side benefit to placing severe limits on exposure to violence is that it’s easier to eliminate that as a possible cause for a child’s aggressive behavior. So, start with that.

How parents control exposure to media violence will necessarily vary, based on the child’s age. While they often see cartoon violence, keep children ages 2-4 away from anything that demonstrates physical aggression as a form of conflict resolution, because will almost always imitate what they see. Children ages 5-7 are generally mature enough to handle cartoon slapstick and mild fantasy violence, but not violence depicting possible serious injury or death. Children in the 8-10 age range can handle obviously fake and non-gory action-hero-style violence, and 11-12-year-olds can handle violence in historical films, as well as duels and fantasy violence, but not extreme gore or graphic violence, especially close up.

By the time children are 13 or 14, they will see almost everything, and you pretty much have to deal with it as a parent. Make them aware that the violence they are seeing is not real, and that in real life, such violence causes a lot of suffering. Even in the 13-17 age group, try to limit exposure to graphic violence, especially when it comes to video games. M-rated video games feature ultra-violent behavior and sexual images, the combination of which isn’t beneficial for developing brains. And don’t give in to the excuse that the child down the street plays it. It’s your child who matters.

Dr. Tali Shenfield  is a clinical psychologist practicing in Toronto, Canada. She is dividing her time between managing the Richmond Hill Psychology Center, conducting psychological and psycho-educational assessments, and writing for “Child Psychology for Parents” blog. You can follow Dr. Shenfield on Twitter at @Dr.Shenfield.