My adult son and I watched the most recent James Bond movie the other day. The level of violence and mayhem is, of course, astounding, so it’s a bit surprising that it is rated PG-13. On the other hand, such violence has become such a part of our culture that perhaps it doesn’t even make sense to try to “shield” kids from it in our entertainment. And one could also ask, does seeing a violent movie even make a difference given the pervasiveness of violence and guns in the America of 2017?
According to a fascinating recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, the answer to this is yes, it does matter. Researchers at Ohio State studied 104 children ages 8-12. All children were individually shown a 20 minute clip from one of 2 PG rated movies (The Rocketeer and National Treasure, in case you were wondering). Half the children were randomly selected to view a clip with guns, and half saw a clip without guns. After the movie viewing, a pair of children (who had both watched the same movie) was taken to a different room with toys, and told they could play with any of the toys while they waited. Also in the room was a cabinet with a 9-mm handgun (modified to be unfirable). During the 20 minute waiting period, researchers and parents monitored the child using a hidden camera.
Thanks to the randomization, there was no difference between those who watched movies with and without guns with respect to their demographics, prior media watching habits, aggressiveness, or attitudes toward guns. Overall, 83% of children found the gun, and almost half picked it up. There was no difference between gun-watching and non-gun-watching participants in regard to finding or picking up the gun. But children who had just finished watching a movie containing guns held the gun 3 times longer, and pulled the trigger 22 times more often, than children who saw the gun-free movie clip. Kids who had watched the movie with guns were also more likely to point the gun at the other child in room and use threatening language.
This is a single study, with inherent limitations, but the findings are startling and provocative, albeit none too unexpected. Seeing violence begets violence, whether in real life or on the screen. The morning after we watched 007, I read in the paper about the latest mass shooting (26 people killed in a church in Texas). I couldn’t help but wonder about the connection.