(Parenting.com) -- With every school shooting, like December's horrific massacre in Newtown, questions about guns in media and their connection to real-life violence bubble to the surface again. After all, there have been reports that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was a fan of the ultra-bloody Call of Duty video game series.
But almost 13 years after Columbine, the connection is still murky. What does research really say about the connection between our kids and the gun-heavy imagery they see on screens? What -- and how much -- should parents do to mitigate aggressive copycat behavior?
The "Star Wars" problem It was not my proudest parenting moment. It was movie night and my 7-year-old daughter, Chloe, was begging for Star Wars. She'd seen it before and seemed to take its gore-free violence in stride. The problem was my 3-year-old son, Julian, who through the movies' massive licensing reach, was already familiar with a galaxy far, far away. He already knew who Chewbacca was; would it really be so bad for him to see the actual movie?
He started pew-pew-pew-ing the next day.
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Julian turned everything (Tinker Toys, tennis rackets, you name it) into a pretend gun and started running around the house like a pint-size Han Solo taking down Storm Troopers.
With the events of Newtown still fresh in my mind, I was horrified. We purposely don't have any toy guns in the house, save a few squirt guns, but that didn't seem to matter. With just one exposure, my baby had morphed into a gun nut.
Was Julian just being a typical boy, or on the precipice of a slippery slope? "There's a certain amount of cowboys-and-Indians-type play and sorting through good guys and bad guys that is very normal at Julian's age," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., CEO of Pediatrics Now and a member of Parenting's advisory board. "We have to allow for some normal child role-playing that lets kids sort out good versus evil and what's acceptable in society."
Sure, it's normal, but is it healthy? Researchers who study TV's effect on kids say this black-and-white view offered by the TV world can cripple kids living in a gray real world. "If a child sees himself as the 'good guy,' then anyone who disagrees with him must be a 'bad guy' -- and this black-and-white thinking doesn't leave much room for trying to see it from the other side, or working out a win-win compromise," says Michelle Garrison, investigator at Seattle Children's Research Institute Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development. "On the other hand, if a child starts seeing himself as a 'bad guy,' then it may no longer feel like it's about choices and actions that can change."
The latest research It's virtually impossible to keep your kid in a violence-free bubble. "Ninety percent of movies, 68% of video games, and 60% of TV shows show some depictions of violence," says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, the online resource for vetting kids media. Kids 8 and under watch an average of 1 hour and 40 minutes of TV or DVDs a day; older kids watch an average of 4 hours daily. Most kids start playing video games around age 4, according to their research.
Yet for all that exposure, we don't know much about what those images do to kids' brains or psyches. The research on the amount of violence consumed by kids is woefully out of date and incomplete, says Knorr. Could playing gory games like HALO or watching violent movies turn a kid into Adam Lanza? "The best we are able to ascertain is that there's no one single factor that can make a non-violent person act violently. But prolonged exposure to violence in media is a risk factor. And it's kids who have multiple risk factors who are likeliest to behave aggressively," explains Knorr. Media experts hope that the task force on guns led by Vice President Joe Biden, which includes discussions with the entertainment and gaming industries, could fuel more research.
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Televisions and movies "With both preschool and school-aged children, studies have found that they are more likely to imitate the violence they see on screen if someone they see as a 'good guy' is using the violence to solve a problem, especially if there are no realistic consequences for the violence," says Garrison. Think Spider-Man and a bad guy smashing into the side of a building, but both appear unhurt and keep on fighting.
A new study published today in Pediatrics, the medical journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that viewing shows in which cooperation and empathy are emphasized (instead of shows that demonstrate aggression) can improve behavior in 3- to 5-year-olds in just 6 months.
Scary images can spook kids even as they are drawn to them. "With toddlers and preschool-aged children, everything can seem much more immediate -- and so seeing violence on TV can leave them feeling like their world is a scary place, where things like that might happen at any moment," says Garrison. "In our research, we've seen that sleep problems like nightmares and trouble falling asleep go up in preschool children even when the violence they're seeing on TV is comic cartoon violence, suggesting that there really isn't such a thing as 'safe media violence' at this age." Look for shows with a rating of TV-Y, which are virtually violence-free, on the channel's web site or your local TV listings.
Quantity is key. Another new study from New Zealand, also published today in Pediatrics, found that excessive TV watching in childhood and adolescence (we're talking 3+ hours a day) is associated with an increased risk of criminal convictions and anti-social behavior in young adults. The AAP recommends no screen time for kids under 2, and no more than 1-2 hours for kids preschool age on up.
Age seven or eight is a turning point, what experts refer to as "the age of reason." While kids under seven have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality, older kids get that slapstick violence is funny because it's happening in a way that never could in real life, says Garrison (think Wile E. Coyote going over a cliff and emerging without a scratch in the next scene). Although it can make parents squirm to see their kids giggle at someone getting hurt, it's the disconnect from the way things really work that makes it funny, and doesn't mean they'd laugh at a friend's injury in real life. Kids this age also grasp the concept of special effects. However, they're still not old enough to handle realistic depictions of violence, so look for shows rated TV-Y7. These shows feature only mild comic or fantasy violence, a la Wile E. Coyote.
Video games The research on video games, especially first-person shooter games, is much more scarce since they have not been around as long as TV, making long-term studies difficult. A recent meta-analysis in 2010 of 12 earlier studies found a link between time spent playing bloody video games and violent behavior later in life. A 2004 study in the Journal of Adolescence showed that video games, because of their physical activity and be-the-character interactivity, desensitized kids to violence even more than TV. However, other studies have failed to show a link between violent video game exposure and aggression.
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Also, most studies have focused on normal kids, not those with existing mental problems. A 2011 study found that gamers who had lower social competence and great impulsiveness had an increased risk of becoming pathological gamers. While playing video games can be a coping mechanism for a child who's already experiencing depression or anxiety, the study's authors suggest gaming can also increase those problems. Like TV, more research needs to be done, especially on kids with risk factors like mental illness or violence in the home.
Cheryl Olson, author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, believes many of the dire predictions about kids and video games are overblown. "Violent crime has been decreasing for the last five years, according to the FBI. So why would we be seeing that if there was a monkey-see, monkey-do effect going on with video games, which are increasing?" she says.
Her research found some video games can actually be beneficial for kids. "They are learning to delay gratification, persist, solve problems, cope with frustration and blow off steam," she says. "We even found that kids who played sports games sometimes went on to play more offline sports."
Choosing appropriate TV and movies Sure, you'd love to sit down with them, but for many busy moms and dads that's just not happening. How can parents make sure their kids are watching age-appropriate shows?
Check the content: Sites like Common Sense Media let parents look up, for free, virtually any show or movie to get an age recommendation as well as an idea of the content, so you know exactly what you're getting before you drop $10 on a movie.
Use controls: Tools like the V-Chip or services offered by your cable provider let you block content you don't want your kids to see on TV. Same goes with gaming systems.
DVR it: Sometimes you need a few kids-out-of-hair minutes to make an important phone call, and you're stuck with whatever happens to be on TV. With a little planning, you can record shows that you feel comfortable with, says Knorr. On-demand is also great for this, but be sure to mute the previews.
Mind the commercials: Sure, you can control show content, but Knorr reminds parents that TV ads are a wild card. This is another reason the DVR is great -- just fast-forward right through.
Watch your own viewing: That news you have on in the background while you're getting ready in the morning? That counts as exposure to violent content, and Dr. O'Keeffe says it can be especially scary to big kids, who understand that it's real.
Mitigate the older sibling effect: "Older children sometimes like to be enlisted in helping to protect a younger sibling from scary or violent media, especially once they learn that even something that seems fun to them might cause nightmares in someone younger," says Garrison. "When looking for media choices that can be a good fit across a wide age span, sometimes non-fiction is the way to go -- documentaries about animals, boats, construction projects, or space travel can be fun for the whole family, and I've seen boys and girls of all ages really enjoy cooking and home remodel shows." That's stuff Mom and Dad might even like too. If all else fails, fire up the laptop or tablet to let your kids watch different shows.
Use YouTube: Kids feel grown-up watching YouTube, which lets you curate a G-rated playlist, says Knorr.
Talk it out: You're not always going to be able to control what your kid sees at a friend's house. Or you might, like me, just make a bad call. The antidote to kids seeing something they shouldn't is to use it as a teaching moment. "Say, 'How did they resolve it? What were the consequences of how they behaved? Was there another way they could have acted?' You need to get kids to understand that conflicts can be resolved without violence," says Knorr.
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Vetting video games How can you indulge your gamer without exposing him to life-like violence?
Follow the ratings: It seems like a no-brainer, yet many parents ignore them. In fact, one study found that 65% of kids age 7-12 have played Grand Theft Auto. Games rated M are meant for kids 17 and up. Your mature kid might be able to handle them a little earlier, or you might find the content in some games less objectionable, but the ratings should be your starting point, says Olson. Check for ratings and descriptions of games at esrb.org.
Rent before you buy: Before you plunk down the cash, Olson suggests taking a game for a test drive to see if the content is consistent with your family's values. Play with your kid so you know exactly what's there.
Look for violence alternatives: There are lots of video games out there that emphasize sports or civilization building, which can actually help kids become good digital citizens, says Dr. O'Keeffe.
Keep video games out of the bedroom: Instead, use them in the family or living room so you know how much your child's really playing. Also, Olson suggests having kids surrender the handhelds at bedtime.
Enforce balance: Many kids have a hard time tearing themselves away from the console, so Olson says it's up to the parents to make sure kids spend their time in a variety of ways.
Watch for warning signs: If you notice your child only likes to play video games alone, or only goes for violent games, those are red flags, says Olson. Also, a period of increased or obsessive playing could indicate a need to escape from a rough patch, so be sure to stay plugged in about what's going on in your kid's offline world, and loop in your doctor if necessary.
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