Studies link TV, video violence with aggression in children

Return to Main Page

Two studies to be released today report finding disturbing evidence that violent television, movies, and video games may affect children's brains in unexpected ways and spur aggressive behavior.

In one study, researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to monitor the brain activity of eight children ages 8 to 13, to see whether different areas of their brains reacted to bloody boxing scenes from "Rocky IV," calm films of baby animals playing, and blank screens.

The researchers were surprised to find that in all eight children, watching "Rocky IV" activated a section of the brain that is also believed to hold long-term memories of traumatic events. That is the section where rape victims store memories of being attacked, for example, and where veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder store their experiences in battle.

"The brain is treating the entertainment violence as real violence," concluded John P. Murray, a psychology professor at Kansas State University. He said the brain is treating the film image as significant and storing it, possibly for use as a guide to future behavior.

"People dismiss entertainment violence as something passing or not very important but that's not true," Murray said. "The brain is treating it as serious stuff."

Murray's study will be presented in Minneapolis on Friday at a meeting of the non-profit Society for Research in Child Development. Charles A. Nelson, a brain researcher at the University of Minnesota, warned that these studies have not been subject to peer review and should be treated with caution.

Nelson said further research needs to explore several issues, such as whether Murray's experiment can be replicated and whether the children's brains were reacting specifically to the violence in "Rocky IV," or to other elements of what they saw. (Murray said he tested only eight kids because the procedure is very expensive).

"At this point, it would be premature to place great weight on this one result, but if true, it would be an important finding," Nelson said.

In another study, the National Institute on Media and the Family surveyed 607 eighth- and ninth-graders on their video game habits.

The research found that children who are not hostile by nature but who play a lot of violent video and computer games are more likely to get into physical fights than children who are temperamentally hostile but don't play those games.

The study also said that children who play a lot of these violent games tend to see the world as a hostile place, are more likely to argue with teachers, and perform more poorly in school.

Douglas Gentile, a child psychologist and an author of the study, said parents should be more vigilant about their kids' video games. The study found that only 13 percent of adolescents say their parents always or often put limits on the amount of time they play them.

"Even if parents grew up playing video games, they probably grew up with Pac Man and Space Invaders," rather than new games, such as a popular one called Duke Nukem that lets players venture into a go-go bar and kill strippers. "We have found that most parents don't know about this game, even when it's in their own houses."

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, which represents video game makers, dismissed the study.

"There is no evidence that playing video games actually causes violent behavior," he said. "Children got into schoolyard fights and arguments with their teachers long before video games existed. Studies like this, which attempt to shift responsibility and find easy answers to the enormously complex problem of youth violence, unfortunately ignore the real causes of the problem."

One Hackensack sixth-grader, Elliot Aultmon, said his mother threw out his copy of the shoot'em-up game called "Doom" because it was "too nasty." He agreed with her. 'I don't want to get violent," he said. "Some kids laugh when they shoot somebody" in games like that.

Joel Baskin, a guidance counselor at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck, didn't buy the argument that violent video games can make a child aggressive. "Many of my generation grew up to be pacifists, but we watched professional wrestling and played war," he said.

Nevertheless, he said, children need caring adults to help them sort out the difference between fantasy and reality, and to make sure they're not getting too immersed in offensive material.

"It's OK for kids to get a little exposure to these things so they know what other kids are referring to and see for themselves what these things are," Baskin said. "The more you suppress it, the more desire they may have to do it."

These studies came out just in time for national TV-Turnoff Week starting Sunday. That campaign encourages schools and families to make a community project out of avoiding television for a week.

Return to Main Page