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November 21, 2010
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Every week I meet up with a bunch of fifth- and sixth-graders at my church to lead them in the “fun and games” part of their youth group. We eat snacks, talk about the highs and the lows of the week, then go outside and play Ghost-in-the-Graveyard, Capture the Flag, Aliens, and Freeze Tag. It’s actually pretty fun. The kids are at that perfect age range where they still actually have fun running around and playing a simple game of tag, but you don’t have to wipe their butts when they’re done pooping toxic waste.

This week, as everyone was filing into the back room with their arms full of Doritos, Chips Ahoy, 7-Up, and all sorts of other healthy, nourishing snack-food, one of the boys came up to me and asked if we could have a movie night some time.

“Sure, that’d be cool,” I said. “What movie were you thinking of?”

“Paranormal Activity,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. I choked and almost blew soda out my nose.

“Paranormal Activity Paranormal Activity? As in, possessed-people-chasing-each-other-around-a-house-trying-to-kill-each-other Paranormal Activity?”

He stared at me, his face clearly saying, OK, Keilah’s finally lost it. “Um, yeah.”

“At youth group?”

I’m going to lay it out right here. The closest I’ve ever come to watching a horror movie is Monster House. I can’t even take thrillers. My mom and I were practically curled up in each other’s laps when we watched Knowing (although the incredibly lame ending detracted from the movie’s scare element). I can count on one hand the number of rated R movies I’ve seen. The fact that this eleven-year-old kid had already seen Paranormal Activity and its sequel astounded me. It almost put me to shame. Wow, I couldn’t help thinking. I am such a wuss. You could not pay me $50 to get me to watch Paranormal Activity and this kid is watching it voluntarily. I value my sleep too much. (You might get me to watch it for $100, though, as long as I'm allowed to cover my eyes.)

And yet, the fact that an eleven-year-old had watched demon-possessed people violently kill each other also slightly disturbed me. I couldn’t help wondering, just what kind of violence are we exposing to our youth? We are shocked at the horror of the Roman gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum. We thank God that we’ve been born into a “civilized” era where such barbaric butchery is safely kept a thousand years away in ancient Rome. But how much more violent are the shows we allow our children to watch on TV? How about the videogames that we allow them to play? The movies we allow them to rent?

Even as we express shock at the mind-boggling cruelty of the Roman mob who pointed their thumbs down and sentenced the unfortunate gladiators to death, we welcome scenes far more violent and gruesome into our very homes. The Romans were exposed to blood and gore, but we are exposed to demonic possession, alien experimentation, nuclear war, global annihilation, death, destruction, and massacre on a scale unheard of in ancient Roman days. Roman violence was limited by the crude technology of their era. Modern violence, on the other hand, is only limited by the most-sophisticated special effects program available.

The effects of media violence poses a controversial topic. Experts in the field have strong positions on both sides of the issue. Many researchers, such as Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto, maintain that “the scientific evidence simply does not show that watching violence either produces violence in people, or desensitizes them to it.”

However I’m not sure what “scientific evidence” Mr. Freedman is referring to. In every article I’ve read, the evidence has remained consistent: violence in the media almost always negatively affects the behavior of children and young people.

In 1960, University of Michigan Professor Leonard Eron “studied 856 third grade students living in a semi-rural community in Columbia County, New York, and found that the children who watched violent television at home behaved more aggressively in school. Eron wanted to track the effect of this exposure over the years, so he revisited Columbia County in 1971, when the children who participated in the 1960 study were nineteen years of age. He found that boys who watched violent TV when they were eight were more likely to get in trouble with the law as teenagers.

“When Eron and Huesmann returned to Columbia County in 1982, the subjects were thirty years old. They reported that those participants who had watched more violent TV as eight-year-olds were more likely, as adults, to be convicted of serious crimes, to use violence to discipline their children, and to treat their spouses aggressively.”

Professor Monroe Lefkowitz published similar findings in 1971. Lefkowitz interviewed a group of eight-year-olds and found that “the boys who watched more violent TV were more likely to act aggressively in the real world.” When he interviewed the same boys ten years later, he found that “the more violence a boy watched at eight, the more aggressively he would act at age eighteen.”

Recent experiments further support the ones conducted in the past. A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2003 found that nearly half of parents with children between the ages of four and six reported that their children have imitated aggressive behaviors from TV. After reviewing dozens of studies of video-gamers in 2001, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman of Iowa State University reported that children and young people who play violent videogames, even for short periods of time, are more likely to behave aggressively in the real world.

If simply playing violent videogames causes children to behave aggressively, what does watching movies such as Saw and Wolfman do to them? What happened to Winnie the Pooh and the Telly Tubbies? When four-year-olds are watching the same thing as twenty-four-year-olds, something has gone terribly wrong.

My fifth- and sixth-graders still enjoy playing Ghost in the Graveyard and the Kick the Can, but for how much longer are they still going to want to watch simple PG movies? Most of them have already moved past that stage. So how much time do they have before PG-13 movies aren’t enough either? Rated R movies?

In the end, I gave my kids the option of a) watching Veggie Tales, or b) playing Capture the Flag. Needless to say, they chose “b.”

They needed the exercise anyway, and I really didn’t want to watch Paranormal Activity. :)





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TwoFace17 said...
Jan. 2, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I have to disagree. I don't think that those studies prove anything. First off, they are bias to begin with. Second, mostly evey kid has watched something violent in their life. So just because a kid does something violent doesn't mean that it's because of what they watch. Being bias and adding a small part of the kid population out of a large population that watch violent stuff, of course the study will be way off the mark. I watched Jurassic Park when I was in Kindergarten. I watched an ani... (more »)

 
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