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Kids And Guns: How exposure To Violence affects (& Doesn’t Affect) Children

Written by Sara Langer

Photography by Photo Via CNN

There is no doubt that gun violence is something that most people in the United States worry about, whether or not they have children. In recent years, we have seen an increase in gun-related violence and deaths, and the onslaught of media coverage can be hard to escape. Young people have more access to violent content, like movies, TV shows, and video games than ever before, while new statistics show that almost 60-percent of high school students say they’re afraid of gun violence occurring at their school or in their community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Everytown, there are 96 gun-related deaths every day in the United States. And for every one person killed with a gun, two more are injured. People of color are much more likely to be affected by gun violence, including the heartbreaking stat that black children are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun than white children. According to Futures Without Violence, more than 60-percent of kids in the U.S. have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence (many in their own homes). Repeated exposure to trauma and violence can disrupt brain development and increase the risk of serious illness, psychological issues, and dangerous behavior later in life.

There is ample research dating back to the 1960’s that links the exposure to violent media in childhood to aggressive behavior, but the act itself of playing with a toy gun or playing physical shooting games is not necessarily a determinant of violent behavior in the future. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., child psychologist, and author of It’s a Boy! Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18, says, “Everyone has an information causation theory that playing with guns leads to the use of guns in adulthood, but there’s no scientific evidence suggesting that playing war games in childhood leads to real-life aggression.” This might come as relief to parents who are consciously trying to avoid exposing their children to guns and who are often shocked and worried when their child all of a sudden starts pointing their hands in the shape of a gun and making shooting noises. But with the conflicting information and research about exposure to violent media and playing with toy weapons and how it may affect our children, many parents are unsure how to approach the topic with their children and when to police their play. With this in mind, below we’ve compiled what researchers know (and don’t know) on the topic right now.

What Research Says Isn’t Clear
A well known longitudinal study that followed children for 15 years clearly demonstrates a relationship between exposure to violent media and aggressive behavior, for both males and females. The study found that with long-term exposure to violent behavior through media, children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, more fearful of the world around them, and more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others. While these findings are probably still playing out today, there is a lack of more recent studies and research, including longitudinal studies on the effects of playing video games versus watching violent media. Children today have so much more exposure to media and regularly see more intense violence than they did thirty years ago. Most of the existing research is outdated. The access to technology and media, as well as the increased prevalence of real-life gun violence has grown at a speed that research cannot keep up with.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have both culled hundreds of studies and they claim there is a significant link between the exposure to violent media and video games and aggressive behavior. Both organizations are firmly against children and teens playing violent video games. On the other hand, some researchers have had different findings, specifically regarding video games. CNN recently spoke with Whitney DeCamp, an associate professor of sociology at Western Michigan University,  who says “the evidence points to either no relationship between playing video games and violent behavior or an ‘insignificant’  link between the two. Some studies have revealed a connection between kids playing violent video games and violent behavior, but there is a problem with looking at those two things in a vacuum.” Many of the studies do not take into consideration other factors outside of the video games that may have an impact on behavior. Other researchers have even found that violent behavior decreases the week after a new violent video game is released. Again, the problem with much of this research is that they are looking at the relationship between video games and behavior, without looking at any other influences and they are not following the subjects over a long period of time. There needs to be further, long-term research that takes other factors into consideration, such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, etc. The research that does exist seems to be all over the place with no definitive answers.

The Obsession with Guns and Masculinity
Even though both males and females can be affected by exposure to violence, gun violence is much more of a “male problem.” According to The Pew Research Center, men are more likely to own a gun, act violently with a gun, and die from a gun than women. Even though each child is unique, in general, we start to see differences in how boys and girls play around two or three years old. Research shows boys more often play physical and aggressive. “We can’t tell if it’s wired in or social learning,” Thompson says. But the difference is strong: A recent survey found that about 60% to 80% of boys play with aggressive toys at home, including guns, while only 30% of girls do. There is also evidence that parents are more likely to give boys what we think of as masculine toys, including toy guns, and that children, once aware of gender difference, are more likely to choose toys that are designated for their gender. The idea of what it means to be a “masculine man” in mainstream society is very limited. To many, guns are a symbol of power and control.  “As a little boy, you’re not very powerful,” Thompson says. “With a gun, you feel powerful and heroic.” That doesn’t mean this type of play is about violence, however. According to Thompson, “it’s really about dominance and heroism, winning and losing, and who gets to be the good guy in the end. Sometimes there is aggression and hurtfulness, and that must be stopped.” An article by Jay Mechling in The American Journal of Play, takes a hard look at the long-lasting appeal of toy guns. Mechling points to a number of cultural factors that link guns to emerging masculinity, from the position of early-day hunters to modern-day characters in films and TV. It is up to parents to talk with their children, especially boys, about what it means to “be a man” and a good person.

Toy Guns Should Look Like Toys
If you decide to let your children play with guns, many experts urge parents to make sure your children know the difference between a toy gun and a real gun. Not only should they be able to tell the difference, you should also teach them what they should do in the case that they find a real weapon. If your child really wants to play with a gun, avoid guns that look realistic, especially dark colors like black or brown. Stick to toys made with bright colors with foam darts or water features. Allowing your children to play with toy guns should be accompanied with age-appropriate conversations about guns and the risk of real guns. It is important to talk about the severe consequences of using a gun in the real-world versus imaginary play. Create rules and regulations within your home regarding what you believe is appropriate play. If your child likes to play with guns, then they need to know the danger that comes with real guns. As we all know, toy guns that look like real guns have to lead to tragic outcomes in the past, as in the 2014 shooting that killed 12-year-old Tamar Rice. The staggering statistics regarding gun violence among black children versus white children is a sobering example of institutionalized racism in the United States and the lasting consequences for today’s youth. The harsh reality is, that parents of children of color need to be ever more vigilant when it comes to their children playing with toy guns.

Imaginative Gun Play vs. Violent Video Games
Imaginary and open-ended play is an important part of childhood and development. Play aids in both social and cognitive development. Children can learn problem-solving skills, develop emotional intelligence, and build connections through play. The distinction we need to look for is aggressive play versus violent play. Through imaginary games, children learn how to control impulses, delay gratification, think symbolically, and view things from another person’s perspective. Play also allows children to act out their fears and aspirations. It is not uncommon for a young child—especially a boy—to pick up a stick and pretend it’s a gun, no matter what their personal background may be. Some physically aggressive play and roughhousing is harmless and to be expected. There are actually many proven benefits to this type of play. But when things go from aggressive to violent, parents need to step in and have a conversation about why that type of play is not appropriate. On the other hand, video games featuring guns or violence do not allow for a lot of the same benefits that come with imaginary play. There is often a set script and set of rules for how things will play out. Creative problem solving and face-to-face connection do not exist.

The Social Implications of the Exposure to Gun Violence
Gun violence is on the rise and the growing exposure to violence in media and real life and the lack of gun control and education in the United States is perpetuating the problem. In response to the Parkland shooting in February, Giffords Law Center published a new report, Protecting the Parkland Generation: Strategies to Keep America’s Kids Safe from Gun Violence. The report states: “The dangerous consequences of the gun violence epidemic cannot be overstated. School shootings may garner the most attention, but in fact, they represent a small percentage of tragedies when it comes to the deadly intersection between kids and guns—many more children experience gun violence in other ways, like domestic violence, urban gun violence, unintentional shootings, and suicide. And the impact of gun violence on kids is staggering. In the last 20 years, more than 150,000 minors have been shot in the United States. Additionally, 150,000 students in at least 170 elementary, middle, and high school have experienced school shootings. In real economic terms, the annual cost of gun violence to children alone is at least $21 billion. Nearly 60% of all high school students report fears of a mass shooting at their school or in their community. Nearly 40% of children exposed to a shooting will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Guns are now the third-leading cause of death for all Americans under age 18.”

Use Common Sense and Be Aware
The research isn’t clear-cut or current enough regarding children and the long lasting effects of exposure to violence, both in real life and through media like videos and games. We do know that gun violence is having an affect on our kids today, in the short term, and many will no doubt go on to change how our society looks at guns. Studies do show that the simple act of playing with toy guns or playing pretend war games does not lead to violent or aggressive behavior in future. Most children that play with toy guns will not go on to be perpetrators of gun violence. There are many factors that will contribute to one’s behavior and ultimate life choices. But parents also need to be aware that the prevalence of violence in our society will not go away if we do not model different behaviors for our children and make major changes to our gun laws. Aggressive and physical play, including play-fighting, is normal for young children, before guns it was knives and swords. But the facts are clear that guns have killed and injured countless more people than knives and swords.

What’s your personal stance on your children and gun play? We’d love to hear in the comments below.

For more on this topic, be sure to queue up the must-watch documentary The Mask You Live In on Netflix, which looks at the devastating effects of toxic masculinity on boys and young men. Common Sense Media also has great resources for dealing with violence in the media your kids consume.

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