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The Desensitized Generation - Reality or Fiction?

03/09/2013 ● By Brian O

A Gaming Generation

Your child spends hours sitting in front of a video game console.You know where he is.He's at home safe and sound and isn't getting himself into trouble, or any dangerous situations, right?Well, the answer may rest on whether he's playing Tetris, or Mortal Komabat? If it's the latter, the jury is still out.He may be distorting his take on reality.Parents and psychologists, alike, worry about the effects of violent television, movies and video games on cognitive, behavioral and affective processes in young minds.

Why is this An Issue?

Columbine, the movie theater and mall shootings, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012 are all red flags that have parents, medical professionals and government officials wondering exactly what is impacting our society.Why are these young men, in these cases, losing their grasp on reality and reacting to situations so violently?Is it a "last straw" scenario?There seems to be a common thread of serious thought and planning in each of these cases.So, what makes someone so angry they want to kill innocent people?Are the shooters aware they are pursuing living, breathing people, some of them innocent children? Or are they in a place absent of reality while they are on their "mission?"

Does it sound like a video game sequence?Plan the attack and execute the plan as flawlessly as possible?Perhaps, but according to the Media Education Foundation, did you know that "by the time the average child is eighteen years old, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence"?This includes not only video games, but movies, television shows and commercials.Does this statistic have no relevance, or is it the key to the problem?How much is too much?

The Reality

The reality is that short of banning technology from all homes, placing children on house arrest and restricting them from all public places and access to any technology whatsoever, they are going to be exposed to screen violence.Whether it's via YouTube, the local news, or commercials interspersed between "wholesome" television shows the information available in the 2010s is very different from the media exposure of the previous generation.Remember when if a movie was R-rated, the scenes that gave it the R-rating was not shown or alluded to as trailers? Remember when men were raised to be gentlemen and you did not see or hear them belittling women on television verbally or physically?Remember when human life was taught to be valued and a murder was not seemingly an everyday occurrence?

The Findings

There have been several key studies performed within the last five years to determine whether children can be desensitized as a result of screen violence.While movies and television are primary culprits it's the video gaming that comes under fire the most.Why?Players are the aggressors in video game play.They are not bystanders, but are put in the role of avenger and/or killer.

The findings from a 2006 study written by Doctoral candidate Holly Bowen, from the psychology department at Ryerson University in Toronto were interesting.Study participants were shown violent images.Participants were separated and asked to watch nonviolent games and violent games.The theory was, if they were desensitized they would have a difficult time recalling the images and would not be affronted by the content.However, it was determined that the memories and arousal of violent video gamers and nonviolent gamers were identical after exposure.Both sets were able to recall details about the images they were shown, and were able to convey evidence of having seen something horrific.

However, Ms.Bowen also stated that "much of the research on video games and violence, however, has tested gamers soon after they played a game, and might not reflect long-term effects." This said, it makes one wonder if repeated exposure to violent images, and the participation in the planning and execution of violence results in a build-up of desensitization over time.Ms.Bowen and her colleague did also suggest that additional study could shed more light on the theory with, "a possible limitation to the study was that the volunteers described their arousal to violent images rather than being monitored for heart rate and other physiological responses, and that more study was needed."

In another study titled “The Effects of Video Game Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life Violence,” which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the authors took the baseline measurements of heart rate and galvanic skin response (the skin's response to stress, anxiety or fright based on its electrical properties) of 257 men and women.Afterwards they were given a video game to play - both violent titles and nonviolent titles were randomly provided.After playing the games the physiological responses were again taken, and the participants were asked to watch a 10-minute video of violent outbursts, shootings, fights, and police confrontations.The results of the final set of physiological responses found that violent video game players had a lower skin response, and also had lower heart rates than the non-violent video game players.In short, they had less of a response to the images they were shown and were more desensitized than nonviolent gamers.

Possible Solutions

There are two sides to every coin.Parents who are gamers themselves will probably be less concerned about the effects violent video games may, or may not, have on their children.Parents who don't play video games may take the opposing stance.The decision is up to individual parents to make, based on their beliefs, the maturity level of the child, and perhaps the title and contents of each game.

Some things to consider:

Psychologists have determined children younger than 8 years of age do not have the mental capacity to separate reality from fiction.Thus, allowing them to play violent video games should be avoided.

In a 2010 study conducted by Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University, it was found that the effects of violent video games were long-lasting , at up to 24 hours, when players reveled in the game.Perhaps parents who allow violent video gaming to occur should distract players immediately following a gaming session to help them switch their thought focus to something positive.

Many violent video game players can log in successive hours spent in front of a screen.It is proven that video game playing can become addictive.Limiting the amount of consecutive time spent playing video games can help.Like anything else in life, moderation is typically ideal.

Pay attention to game ratings.Many video games are played by youths younger than what they are rated for.Parents should not leave it up to the ratings and research the games before they are purchased or played.

If violent video game play is allowed, parents may attempt to offset the effects with another outlet, like exercise.Schedule a run, walk or planned activity after a video game session to let your child burn off the resulting aggressive behavior.

It still is not definitive whether video games or violent programming desensitizes today's youth.However, perhaps the answer is to not wait for a concrete answer and to be proactive.Perhaps the answer is that today's children are already numb to what can be seen, because of the sheer volume of questionable content.Whatever the case, parents must make their determinations based on what they believe is in the best interests of their children.

Despite the studies, ratings, and opinions on the subject, violent video games have not been proven to be the root of the traumatic events that seem to plague society today.However, it is being in touch with emotions, aware of one's behavior and the appropriateness of others' and having a firm grasp on reality that can help build a strong, contributing member of society.After all, isn't that the goal every parent has?

Written by Kim Green-Spangler

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