Every so often a new study posits the link between media violence and real violence. The theory most often is that children exposed to violent themes and games become inured to real violence and thus more likely to commit violent acts. There is a certain logic to the premise but is it really that straightforward? Hasn’t violent play always existed?
People raised during the earlier days of television were exposed to far more violent images than their moving picture going or radio listening ancestors. A child growing up in the 1950s was immersed in cowboy-shoot-em-up imagery and play. Cowboy and cowgirl costumes (replete with guns and holsters) were not just Halloween costumes; they were toys. Television, movies, books, comic books and creative play was rife with shooting. Even Superman (the television show) had people shooting (and killing) people. Toy soldiers, G.I. Joe and war games have been a part of child’s play since the advent of war. But all of this happened in a distinct child’s world, in which an adult (related or not) was always at the ready to impose adult order. The world belonged to adults and children knew that. They were ever conscious of their place in the adult world and the distinct delineation between being a child and being an adult. Children engaged in unsupervised play and then returned to the structured adult world.
The adult world demanded marked different behavior than that of a child’s world. The language (e.g., slang, profanity,) manners, appearance and attire requirements in the adult world were different from that in the child’s world. Adults maintained the boundaries in various ways. There were many subjects that were not discussed in front of children (little pitchers have big ears; what in the world does that mean!?) Adults socialized without their children and enjoyed other privileges of adulthood (e.g., choosing which television shows were watched, what foods were eaten, which clothes were purchased, etc.) The rigidity of home life was countered with the wildly independent social life of a kid. Play was unsupervised and free-range. Children engaged in activities without parents. They played sports, danced and sang without their parents witnessing every single moment. They were in their world and they were just playing.
Children flourish when they can explore the world safely. Knowing that adults are in charge and are sure as shootin’ gonna tell them what to and not to do, is very comforting. However, if a child is left with a feeling that the adults are not in charge, or worse yet, the child is in control, that child can grown very frightened and insecure. The same child who senses that “no one is the boss of me” not only has a fuzzy sense of fiction and reality (which is an inherent part of childhood development and why children need parents) but also could possibly be left to immerse themselves far too often in violent games and play. There is nothing about holding a plastic gun and aiming it at a screen that is more violent than holding a Davy Crockett pistol against a friend’s head. However there is something numbing about playing alone and obsessively. An interesting treatment in these “violence studies” would to be to have one group of children “Go Outside And Play!”
This dance of control in which parents involve themselves in a child’s world and children are given equal footing in the family may not be the most effective formula for growing strong children. Children flourish when they are given limits. They want to grow up when being a grown-up looks better than being a kid. While there is nothing positive one could say about violent video games, it is short sighted to think any imagery in any form has the power to change collective behavior. Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and childhood and adulthood is much more likely to affect change. If in fact the exposure to violent imagery (in games, film, video, etc.) has risen and violence in children and young adults has risen, that is indeed correlation. But to suggest (yet again!) causation and wag our finger at the media makes us look silly and a bit irresponsible.