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Does Entertainment Play a Role in the Increasing Gun Violence Among Youth?

The recent series of horrifying, unspeakably senseless mass shootings perpetrated by teenagers and young adults in different American states has all of us in this country searching for answers. What can be causing these increasingly common, genocidal outbursts of gun violence? And what can we as a society do to change things?

Most of us understand that it would be simplistic to try to pin the growing number of mass shootings by young Americans on any one or two factors, in what has become a very complex society. A reasonable mind has to conclude that the causes behind these horrific events must be manifold.

But it would be intellectually irresponsible, perhaps even morally negligent, to say that the entertainment media — television, movies, music, and nowadays, video games — play no role in this worsening state of events.

Literally hundreds of studies have been done in the last few decades, which alternately find that television, video games, and other forms of entertainment that young people are exposed to, play no role in aggression and future propensity toward violence, while other times, studies find that children who are exposed to violence on television and other media are indeed more likely to display future aggression and violence, and show a decrease in “pro-social” or cooperative behavior.

Before video games gained explosive popularity in this country, the focus was on TV and movie violence. A 15-year study by the University of Michigan, published in the journal Developmental Psychology in 2003, tracked the lives of  hundreds of children in Chicago, to measure the effects of childhood exposure to TV violence on aggression as young adults.

The study found that the more a child watched violent TV shows, the more likely he or she was to engage in later aggression, such as pushing, grabbing or shoving their spouse or another adult. They were also more likely to be  convicted of a crime later on.

The study also found that when violence was rewarded on TV, such as when a “hero” character received glory for killing  a bad guy, the influence on the young viewer was worse than a bloodier act by a bad guy who was ultimately brought to justice. In the case of the hero character who was rewarded, violence was more likely to be seen as acceptable.

The popularity that video games have gained in the past decade-plus gives parents yet one more reason to be concerned about the psychological influences to which their growing children are being exposed.

As in the case of Hollywood regarding TV violence, many studies have been done that alternately show that children who play violent video games have an increased tendency toward aggression in the short term or long term — while other studies show no such link. States wanting to restrict younger kids from being able to purchase more violent, “mature” video games have been successfully challenged in courts by the very lucrative gaming industry.

Current estimates indicate that around 90 percent of American kids ages 8 to 16 play video games, an average of 13 hours a week (with boys playing more than girls). And even when video games are not violent, it cannot be disputed that the more a person, of any age, spends time playing games that not only remove them from the world around them, but could tend to warp their sense of reality, the more out of touch they might become over time.

It is believed that this is partly what happened in the case of James Holmes, the 25-year-old former PhD college  student who walked into a packed Aurora, CO movie theater heavily armed, and killed 12 moviegoers at random. Friends who knew Holmes say that he became obsessed with video games, and he sometimes believed that he was one of the characters in them.

With respect to the gratuitous violence in video games, critics point out that game publishers are, to a certain extent, training children on the use of lethal weapons — as well as desensitizing them to murder, by allowing them to role-play the killings of hundreds or even thousands of pretend enemies in a single video game.

In July 2000, four respected national health organizations came together to tell the American public that violence in television, music, video games and movies does, indeed, increase aggression in children.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said in a joint statement that “prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life.” The groups stated that the effects of media violence exposure are “measurable and long-lasting.”

The doctors were quick to point out that other major factors contributing to increased gun violence among youth are family breakdown and the availability of weapons.

With respect to this last point — the proliferation and, yes, glorification, of firearms in this country —  this is a state of affairs that has now left an emotional scar in the nation’s collective psyche forever.

We now know that Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old former college student who shot to death first his mother, then 20 children and six employees at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, had at least a dozen firearms inside her home. We now know that Nancy was an avid gun enthusiast, and that she often took her two sons to the local firing range to practice target shooting.

Adam was mildly autistic, and his mother knew that he had emotional problems (so much so, that she was in the process of having him involuntarily committed). Two obvious questions that arise are, what were all those guns doing in the house? And why would a mother have wanted her boys to practice shooting guns; specifically, semi-automatic ones?

Some things that parents in the U.S. can do, to stem the growing tide of gun violence in our youth, while we all wait for politicians to do what they will do: Be more attentive to the emotional needs of children. Spend time with them and instill in them good values. Talk with them often and inquire about their daily lives. Watch television with them and monitor what they watch and what music they listen to.

Instead of buying video games, parents can encourage their children to pick up more creative hobbies, play sports, volunteer, become involved in activities in the family’s place of worship.

One might understand having one firearm for protection, if a family must; but when guns become a hobby and a “sport,” this country has taken a wrong turn.

Instead of having guns lying around (and taking kids to target practice), or letting kids watch violence on TV or play violent video games, a parent could find much more positive and life-affirming ways to spend his or her free time with the kids. Let them help you around the home, or with the gardening. Take them on trips away from the concrete jungles that most of us live in, and let them experience the wonders and the beauty of nature: life as it  was intended.

By Marc Courtiol

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