Can Viewing Violent Content on Screens Influence Behavior?

A recurring question from parents of children and adolescents is whether exposure to violent content can cause their children to develop aggressive behavior. We tell you what the research says.

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LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Ramírez Ramos

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Boys and girls are increasingly exposed to the contents of digital screens from an early age. This fact has caused curiosity in psychologists, educators, and researchers trying to discover the effects of this exposure. However, a particular situation has concerned parents and researchers for many years with the popularization of television and video games. Now, with other channels such as social networks, online video games, and streaming platforms: can watching violent content make the viewer violent?

In the area of behavior, there are no easy answers, and many individual factors can determine how a person reacts to certain stimuli. However, numerous studies suggest that violent content does affect behavior and mental health in childhood and adolescence. The Lancet Magazine, in its Americas section, has just published an editorial entitled: "Screen violence: a real threat to mental health in children and adolescents." In it, he notes that "A meta-analysis of 24 studies from Canada, the US, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Singapore concluded that engaging in violent video games was related to aggression. This study confirms earlier findings from another meta-analysis." of 130 research reports comprising 130,000 participants. Time spent viewing violence on screen has also been directly associated with increased bullying and cyberbullying in both boys and girls ." However, it is a controversial topic, and it is noted that more research is still needed.

Likewise, it has been shown that exposure to violent content can decrease empathy and cause an increase in aggressive thoughts and aggressive or angry behavior. This is especially important because aggressive behavior in childhood can be a predictor of violence in adulthood. Another study entitled "Screen violence: a real threat to mental health in children and adolescents" was published in July 2021 and focuses on the effects of screen violence on the mental health of children and adolescents. The study builds on a systematic review of previous research on the topic, which found that exposure to violence on screens, whether on television, video games, or online, can increase the risk of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, aggression, and impulsive behavior. The study also suggests that exposure to screen violence may have long-term effects.

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On the other hand, constant exposure to violent content can also cause desensitization: If exposed to violence frequently, a person can become desensitized to violence, meaning they no longer react to it with the same emotional intensity. This can lead to a lack of empathy toward victims of violence. "A reaction that can be adaptive in situations of continuous real violence can be unnecessary and harmful when that violence comes from informational and entertainment content, becoming an educational problem," says Unicef.

In contrast, emotional reactions to the consumption of violent content can generate nightmares, sleep disorders, and sadness and hopelessness in minors.

How to Manage the Consumption of Violent Content in Children and Adolescents?

In general, limiting exposure to violence and seeking help if you feel the child is affected is essential. Parents and caregivers must become aware of these possible effects and of the need to limit this exposure and establish dialogues that allow emotions to be socialized.

UNICEF suggests that schools and homes must establish a critical education in the media, which teaches children how to analyze the information offered by social networks, the media, movies, video games, etc. Likewise, this organization recommends asking some questions to assess what type of violence the content presents, how it is justified, and how "attractive" this model can be for children to imitate. Some questions are: "Is the aggressor an attractive character? Is it possible to empathize with the victim, or has she been represented as a flat character without personality? Is there a reward or punishment for violence? o, are the consequences visible? of violence?" All this can be reflected with minors.

Finally, it is also important to offer alternative narratives. That is to say, show examples of readings, video games, films, documentaries, etc., that show the consequences of violence or present alternative measures of the importance of peace, tolerance, cooperation, and dialogue.

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