Focus on the Family

Violent Toys and TV Programs

Should I be concerned that my young son has been spending a lot of time watching violent cartoons and playing with the "spin-off" action figures marketed by the shows' producers? How do you think these programs and products affect the attitudes and behavior of children?

In our view, parents would be wise to exercise discernment and be careful not to make so-called “violent” play into a bigger issue than it really is. This observation is especially relevant where boys are concerned. Little boys are naturally drawn to games like cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and playing with toy soldiers. It’s just the way they’re wired. When a boy engages in play that centers around themes of right and wrong and good versus evil, his actions demonstrate that he’s in the process of developing an inward moral compass. For the most part toy guns, toy miniatures, and board games that involve war and combat won’t hurt kids or encourage violence, and are simply a part of this kind of play.

There can be exceptions to this rule, of course. If play becomes dangerous, destructive or mean-spirited, parents need to step in and administer swift and firm consequences. This is a real and growing possibility in contemporary society, where movies, TV shows, music and computer/video games are all-pervasive, and where their content can be incredibly violent. This trend toward extremely violent “entertainment” represents a dangerous departure from the typical combat games that children have engaged for hundreds of years. Research demonstrates that, due to the influence of mirror neurons in the brain, kids who view violent media are more likely to become violent than those who are not similarly exposed. Violent TV programs and movies (especially those designed for adults) are more potent in this regard than cartoons and commercials.

Due to their interactive nature, violent video and computer games are the most potent of all. As a matter of fact, research indicates that we are justified in singling these games out for special attention in this regard. Recent findings underscore their effectiveness as devices that actually teach aggressive behavior. In a six-month study conducted by Iowa State University, Douglas Gentile and J. Ronald Gentile discovered that elementary students whose three favorite video games contained violence were 73% more likely to be highly aggressive than those whose favorites were both violent and non-violent, and a whopping 263% more likely to exhibit hostile behavior than those who played only non-violent games. That’s because the games in question use the same teaching techniques employed by the world’s greatest teachers. Among other things, they adapt themselves to the learning pace of the player, present lists of clear objectives, and provide opportunities to put learned skills into practice immediately. As if that weren’t enough, these skills are continually honed throughout the progressively more difficult levels of the game. In a classic understatement, the researchers concluded that these findings “should make us more thoughtful about designing games and choosing games for children and adolescents to play.”

In general, violent media stimulate fears and anxieties which leads to a heightened “fight or flight” response in children. Studies show that measurable physiological changes occur while a child is watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game: the pulse rate quickens, eyes dilate, hands sweat, the mouth goes dry and breathing accelerates. The emotional impact of this experience increases the more it is repeated.

Here again, the sex of the child in question is an important consideration. As a rule, girls tend to shy away from violent behavior (a “flight” response), whereas boys display a greater tendency toward imitating or adopting it (a “fight” response). Age and developmental maturity are also important factors: very small children (toddlers) are more concrete in their perceptions, and more easily and seriously alarmed by violence. Older children (five years and above), on the other hand, have a greater capacity to objectify, rationalize and distance themselves from it.

Bottom line: Parental involvement and discernment are key. Parents should carefully evaluate the moral themes and images in any media product before buying or renting it. This can be a problem, of course, given the huge volume of entertainment options that are available. Who has the time to preview every video game, movie and TV program that requires this kind of intensive examination? Not many of us. That’s why it’s comforting to know that there are a number of inexpensive (sometimes free) trustworthy media-review resources that can provide you with a quick run-down of all the relevant facts. Not only do these resources identify the bad apples in the barrel-they also highlight the good. Focus on the Family’s
Plugged In offers balanced, trustworthy reviews of what’s hot in the media.

If you feel a need to discuss this issue at greater length with a member of our staff, please don’t hesitate to contact our Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

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