Sex and violence are at an all-time high in the movies our children watch, the music they hear, and the games they play. And, in bad news for moms and dads a new study, published recently in Pediatrics, suggests that it is parents who are unknowingly dropping the ball.
The researchers asked 1000 parents of children between 6 and 17 years to watch eight movie clips in a random order. Each clip contained either sexual content or strong violence. Parents were asked what age their children would have to be before being allowed to watch these scenes.
The first clip was always rated as being suitable for an older child. The final clip was always rated as being appropriate for younger children. Regardless of the order of viewing, parents consistently reduced their age recommendations as they watched more clips.
The more of a particular kind of content we watch, the greater the level of desensitization we experience. What was once shocking eventually barely registers. Like a drug, the more violence or sexual content we take in, the more of it we need to get the same shock factor. Don’t watch the news for a couple of months, and then sit through a full bulletin. It will assault your senses.
Is there really a problem with our children seeing sex and violence? Does it really affect them?
In my work I regularly speak with parents of children as young as six who are watching Game of Thrones, The Wire, or Breaking Bad. Their parents wonder why their child is having “behavior issues.”
Many adults claim that they’ve watched violent movies all of their lives, played violent games, and never killed someone. In fact they’ve never even acted aggressively. They’ll say the "wowser-brigade" is making mountains out of molehills.
They’ll point to all the things we watched as children that never affected us because we never understood it. What is the harm of allowing a 6-12 year-old to see sex and violence in their lounge room?
These arguments persist in spite of hundreds of studies over several decades showing that sexual and violent content are genuinely influencing our behavior — and our morality. We may not kill people because we watched Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot bad guys by the thousands. But research tells us that violent and sexual content do impact the way we behave towards others.
As one neat example, a 2009 study demonstrated that exposure to gratuitous violence in either a game or a movie led to a reduced willingness to help someone who was in pain.
Participants in two different experiments took longer to come to the aid of an injured victim, saw a violent act as less serious, and were less likely to even hear that a fight was occurring when compared with those who played a non-violent video game or watched a non-violent movie.
Additionally, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prolonged exposure to violence increases agreement with the idea that violence is an acceptable way of solving problems. It also promotes acceptance — in children — of the "mean world" syndrome: a belief that the world is a dark and sinister place.
Ongoing (or even periodic and accidental) exposure to sexual and violent content is empirically proven to have a desensitizing impact on both children and adults. The more we watch it, the less concerned we are about it — and the greater the potential impact on us, on our children, and on our society.
We may not become “violent” or “sexual,” but our behaviour and our responses are impacted by what we have seen. Empathy is reduced. Objectification is increased. Morality erodes.
Our digital diet is desensitizing us. The violence and sex we see is glamorized, and often consequence-free. But there are consequences we are not aware of. We need to wake up. By not only enduring it, but embracing it — and endorsing it for our children’s entertainment — we act to their detriment.
Dr. Justin Coulson is the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family. He and his wife have six children. Find him on Facebook. This article first ran in The (Sydney) Daily Telegraph and is reprinted with permission.