"A group of boys in my kindergarten class used to play games containing unusually gory and disturbing images of death and blood. Their favorite game was "suicide". I believe that a few boys were watching scary movies and describing them to a larger group of other boys who found this thrilling. Their conversations and this suicide game distressed me but when I tried to stop it, my prohibition seemed to make it even more exciting. "
"The boys began to talk about it whenever they thought I wasn't listening. I discovered that when we talked about these games in the whole group, we could make rules to keep their play safe and make it acceptable to the other children in the class. The boys learned to listen to the feelings of the other children and to compromise about their play to take other children's ways of thinking into account."
Jane Katch, M.S.T.
Kindergarten Teacher, Touchstone Community School Grafton, Massachusetts
Author, Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play
Does violence in the media contribute to boys' aggressive behavior or does it reflect it? And what can parents and teachers do about it?
Why do boys like scary stories and violent media?"They're awesome," says one boy. And there's nothing new about their presence in boys' lives. Throughout history, fairy tales and other forms of children's literature have captured children's imaginations with scary characters and violent plots.
Young boys play out what they observe in the world around them. Until the age of six or seven, children sometimes have trouble distinguishing fantasy and reality. After observing violent images on the TV news, they can't always tell the difference between what is real and what is not, and they worry that this event is going to happen to them. "When wars take place on the other side of the world, some children expect to find bullets in their back yard. Playing out these scenarios is a way to get control over them," says Jane Katch. "In my kindergarten class, kids played Hurricane Katrina. They were hanging from the monkey bars pretending the water was getting higher. They were reassuring themselves, 'What I saw on the news won't happen to me. I can protect myself.'"
Young boys play out what they see on TV, in movies, and games. When fairy tales provided the scariest images around, kids' fantasy play involved witches, bears and wolves. Then came TV, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto dominated. Today, some kids as young as five are watching PG-13 and even R-rated films, as well as playing interactive games like Grand Theft Auto intended for older children. And, the images from these games are being incorporated into fantasy play. "So, on top of boys' natural fantasies about good and bad guys, there is now an overlay of terrifying material that they have picked up from the media, the kinds of graphic violence that used to be seen only by adults or much older children. This is troubling for many boys who have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Some boys tell me they can't stop thinking about these images and that they interfere with their ability to focus in school. So we talk about it a lot," says Katch, "sorting out what could really happen in the world from what is make-believe."
However, media violence is not the cause of real violence."There is a clear moral difference between aggression that appears in play and fantasy (like watching a Road Runner cartoon) and actual harm done to other human beings (like calling your sister a 'bitch' or bullying a kid on the playground," says Thomas Newkirk, Ph.D., Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, and author of Misreading Masculinity." I think all of us need the former, and no one should be allowed to freely cross the line into the latter. It is an incredible fallacy to think that if children are protected from depictions of violence, and kept from competitive and play violence, that they will be free of these aggressive tendencies. It probably makes this material even more appealing if it is prohibited. This, of course does not mean that all of it is appropriate."
Older boys can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. By age seven, most boys can distinguish media violence from real violence. However, some may become over-stimulated by violent media experiences. "It's important to monitor and even limit your older son's media experiences. But take your cues from your child as there's a wide range of reactions," advises Michael Thompson. "If you find that your eight-year-old son pokes his younger brother in the eye after playing video games, you have to limit his game playing. But some boys won't behave aggressively at all as a result of media exposure. Some people assume that girls can filter out this information, but boys as well — particularly older ones — can tell right from wrong."