By: Rachel Redman
“What did you do on the weekend?”
“Played Grand Theft Auto. It was awesome! I stole a car, and shot the driver, and drove the wrong way to smash into pedestrians!”
Whenever the question of what students did on the weekend, or what they are excited about doing after school comes up, many of my third-grade students talk about their excitement for violent video games. It seems that they are online playing these games a lot of the time. My husband is an avid “gamer,” and therefore I know at least the names and plots of many of these games. When I come home and tell him about which games my students are playing, he is regularly shocked that they would have access to these games at such a young age. Online games are even more accessible, as they don’t require a ride to the store or an adult to purchase the game. What impact does the exposure to all of this violent play have on our young students? Are we worried about nothing, or is violent play online a precursor to violent actions in real life?
What are they Doing Online?
There are many great opportunities for students online, including connecting with friends or people from other countries, learning about topics of interest, and learning how to do various activities (e.g., how to make a rainbow loom bracelet, how to code). However, there is also a lot of opportunities online for students to be exposed to violent media. Many of the more popular games and activities online can involve exposure to “the killing of people or animals, the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, and criminal behaviour” (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2015) to name a few. Although many online sites and games have age limitations on their users, it is easy to lie about your age and continue to the site if no one is watching. In my experience, many of my students talk about playing games like Grand Theft Auto, Clash of Clans, Strike Force, and anything to do with zombies. All of these games are technically rated well above the ages of my third-graders, but they are all able to access them with ease. This leads me, and many other educators, parents, and researchers, to wonder what the effects of this violent exposure will have on these young viewers?
Do We Know the Effects?
According to the American Psychological Association, there are three major effects of children experiencing violence in the media:
- Children becoming less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others
- Children becoming more fearful of the world around them
- Children becoming more likely to behave aggressively towards others (Tompkins, 2003)
All of these outcomes are obviously undesirable for our students. Watching or participating in violence online could cause students to become desensitized to the violence, which would explain why they are less empathetic to others. On the other hand, it could also cause them to blur the lines between reality and online life and start believing that some of the violence they see online could replicate itself in reality. The most common complaint about children’s exposure to violence online is that it causes them to be more aggressive with each other. However, according to the US surgeon general, any or all of these effects have been proven to be short-term at best (Tompkins, 2003), which means we have no long term proof that exposure to violence online causes children to become more violent in life.
Dr. Eugene Beresin notes that there appears to be a “strong correlation between media violence and aggressive behaviour within vulnerable “at risk” segments of youth” (Beresin, 2016). Violent television and video games have a strong ability to promote role-model behaviours to children, and if these behaviours are primarily violent, children begin to see violence as a viable solution to life’s problems. “At risk” segments of the population may be experiencing violent situations in reality, and turn to violence as a solution to their problems because of this intense exposure online over time.
What Can Teachers Do?
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry promotes discussion between adults and children about what they view online or on television. They also advocate for media literacy programs in schools, to educate students about how to process what they may encounter online and in the media (Beresin, 2016). One such program in Canadian schools is called “Kids in the Know” and was created by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. This program provides schools with lesson plans, story books, and puppets to engage students and teach them about safety habits, both in the community and online.
Teachers can work to help students understand the dangerous elements of online violence, and promote a culture of non-violent solutions in the classroom and in the school. Teachers can also work with parents to help them understand some of the potential impacts of violent media on students, and encourage them to find other avenues of play for their kids.
I’m not sure that we can escape the violence our students are exposed to at this point in our digital journey, but it seems that teachers, along with parents, are responsible for teaching our students how to process what they are being exposed to and how to find alternatives to playing with violence.
- Media and Digital Literacy: Resources for Parents
- Privacy and Internet Safety
- Video Games and Violence: What Every Parent Should Know
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2015). Video games and children: playing with violence.
Tompkins, A. (2003). The psychological effects of violent media on children.