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Witnessing violence makes kids aggressive and fearful, experts say

Jul 19, 2016

The attack in Nice, France.

The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Officers slain in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Lousiana.

The seemingly unrelenting acts of violence over the last few weeks may have made you want to avoid the news. And if you have kids, you may want to shield them from the world.

But with nearly three out of four teenagers having access to smartphones, children are often exposed to violence – whether real or fictional – in their everyday lives.

"Virtual violence" – violence experienced through media or realistic technologies – can make kids more aggressive, violent and fearful, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This week, it released a policy statement with suggestions on ways to lessen the adverse effects.

Dimitri Christakis is lead author of the statement. He said in a press release:

The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to be concerned about the impact that virtual violence has on children, and we know that parents are also concerned, because it's a question that pediatricians often receive during wellness exams.

According to CNN, researchers looked at more than a dozen studies about the effects of virtual violence and aggression on children's attitudes and behaviors. Christakis told CNN:

Screen violence, particularly when it is real but even if it is virtual, is quite traumatic for children regardless of age. It is not uncommon to see increases in nightmares, sleep disturbances and increased general anxiety in the wake of these events. While it is true that the horrific events of this past week can happen at any time, the real risk to individuals remains low. Children need reassurance. Parents should be mindful of their children's media diet and reduce virtual violence especially if their child shows any aggressive tendencies.

In 2014, more than two-thirds of children were either victims of or witnesses to violence within the past year, according to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Child Trends. These violent experiences can create long-term physical, mental, and emotional harm.

Earlier this month, the AAP announced a new initiative to confront violence in kids' lives. Experts plan to come together to find new ways to protect kids and young adults from the epidemic of gun violence, and the contributors of racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, xenophobia, terrorism or any other form of intolerance. AAP executive director Karen Remley said in a press release:

Pediatricians may not be able to solve these problems—which leave in their wake fear and mistrust, confusion, anger, and deep sorrow—but pediatricians know children best. We care for children in the communities where violence erupts, and we talk to parents about how to keep their children healthy and safe. Pediatricians who work in urban and suburban pediatric practices, emergency rooms and rural clinics, can come together to understand what is happening and how to address it. Through this new effort, we will confront the violence in children's lives and its root causes. We don't yet know where this conversation will lead us, we just know we need to act. I look forward to beginning this work as soon as possible.

The AAP's recommendations for mitigating the effects of virtual violence include:

  • Pediatricians should consider a child's "media diet" as a part of wellness exams, considering not just the quantity of media but also the quality.
  • Parents should be mindful of their child's media consumption, and should co-view media and co-play games with their children.
  • Protect children under age 6 from all virtual violence, because they cannot always distinguish fantasy from reality.
  • Policy-makers should consider legislation to prohibit easy access to violent content for minors and should create a robust and useful "parent-centric" media rating system.

You can read the policy statement from the AAP, and its full list of recommendations here.