A pleasant way of spending time
Most people who watch television or play computer games have one thing in common: no matter how much time they spend in front of the screen, they enjoy it and feel a sense of involvement. This is obviously a positive effect of the media. Like adults, children are entertained by what the screen has to offer; it is relaxing, informative and entertaining. Series and quizzes cause a great sense of involvement: sitting together round the TV set, talking about the strange, exciting or extreme things on the screen. Games, in turn, create excitement: who is the first to score the most points?
Easy to influence
Parents and teachers are well aware that children are easily influenced by television and computer games. One can see that children get a lot pleasure from them – more than from books – and they can influence their playing behaviour. However, TV and computer can also cause wild or aggressive behaviour. Children don’t see things the way adults do. Sometimes programmes are too fast for them (subtitles!), sometimes they are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, sometimes they don’t know enough about the grown-ups’ world to process all the information.
It is not easy to combine watching television and playing on the computer with other leisure activities, such as reading or playing sports. Children who are watching TV or playing computer games are not playing outside with friends, not sleeping, not doing household chores. Sitting behind the screen late into the night is not good for concentration at school. Every parent knows this, but there is no harm in taking a moment to consider this seriously from time to time.
Other negative effects of television and computer games are related to what they see or play. Scientists now believe that violent images can harm children. The extent of the effect of violence depends on the children themselves and on the way the violence is shown by the media. Media violence can have effects of three types: 1) fearful reactions, 2) desensitising effects, and 3) violent behaviour.
Scared of the big bad wolf
Most parents would agree that fearful reactions to images of violence are a cause for concern. If a child is just a little afraid, that is not a problem. But sometimes it becomes too much: nightmares, lack of sleep and bed-wetting when children are confronted with programmes or games they are not ready for yet. There are signs that can easily be observed by parents or teachers: the child may fidget nervously when watching or playing, play more roughly or more quietly than usually. Research in the Netherlands shows that 7% of primary school children are sometimes so afraid due to bad images on TV that they are still troubled several days later.
If children are afraid of something, it is because they are not yet able to understand the images. In their imagination they see them as real, they think that the dangers they have seen can occur close to home. Very young children often think that things on television are real or even literally inside the television set. As a result, a toddler can be worried by a simple argument in a puppet show or cartoon.
Older children can be scared by images of war, hunger in poor countries, unemployment or the greenhouse effect, but ‘scary’ things acted in police series or horror films can also frighten them. Children know that these programmes are only fiction, but due to the music and special-effects technology certain images can have a huge impact, in particular images of situations that are recognisable or plausible for the children concerned. Examples of scary television series mentioned by children are Commissaris Rex, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-files.
What harm can it do?
If children often see images of violence, they can become accustomed to violence. Aggressive behaviour is seen as a normal means of resolving problems; children become desensitised. In fact, this effect is not limited to children. Adults who are frequently confronted with violence, also consider it as acceptable more often.
Violence is not a game
If children consider media violence as normal, it is only a small step to violent behaviour when playing with friends or being in the street. Extensive scientific studies have shown that children can be affected. The effect of media violence on small-scale aggression, such as kicking, hitting, teasing and fighting, is quite large. The risk of children showing such behaviour after having seen violence on television is 1 in 10. These are usually short-term effects. Immediately after seeing a programme or playing a computer game, the children imitate the acts of violence or become so excited that they ‘forget’ to behave decently.
Which children may be influenced?
Media violence does not always affect children. Some children are more easily influenced than others. We know from research that media violence has the greatest effect on:
· young children (they cannot place violence and its consequences in a proper context yet);
· boys (they often have a greater preference for violence and action and are less easily scared);
· children who enjoy violence (they empathise more with the heroes and are more willing to condone the violence);
· less-skilled children (children who perform less well at school and anxious children often find it hard to distance themselves from the violence shown).
By which programmes and games?
Research has revealed that:
· children are more likely to adopt or accept violence as normal if the violence shown is realistic, i.e. if it is serious and credible from a child’s point of view. If children can ‘see through’ the violence, they are less likely to emulate it in their own behaviour.
· violence has a more serious effect if it is practised by the heroes or ‘good’ characters. Children do not readily copy villains and baddies.
· there is a greater risk of violent effects when media violence is rewarded or when the painful consequences of violence are not shown. Programmes that arouse sympathy for the victims of violence have an opposite effect. Children who watch such programmes become less aggressive and are more likely to reject violence.
· violent programmes or games have a greater effect if they contain a great deal of action, fast editing, loud noise and exciting images. These make children more unsettled, forgetting their own limits.
Many television programmes, films and computer games follow the formula described above. In the most violent computer games, children ‘play’ the hero themselves, using violence to reach a higher ‘level’. As long as they keep both feet on the ground and realise that it is just a film or a game, educators need not be unduly worried. But if children don’t recognise these boundaries, parents should seriously consider the possible violent effects.
Fortunately, parents are able to influence the effects of violent images. The occasional critical comment if things are getting too much can counteract the media effects. Parents can also keep an eye on the type of toys coming into the house (aggressive or not) and set a good example, showing that there are also non-aggressive programmes and games.
They know a lot more
It is sometimes said that since the advent of television, (games) computers and the internet, there are no mysteries for children anymore. Children these days know a lot more about what goes on in the world. This does not mean that children can understand and want to see everything they are confronted by. If it really gets too difficult, children switch off quickly. Primary school children don’t know how to place serious violence, explicit eroticism or hard horror in the proper context. Parents who regularly watch together with their children, will see that there are enough mysteries left for them and that a lot of programmes, computer games and websites can be useful tools to discover all sorts of things.