Marcy told the other parents in her focus group that her concerns went well beyond the contents and immediate effects of violent video games. “I think it also creates for children—and they may not admit it—a real sense of terror, an underlying sense that life is just violent; that awful things happen all the time to people.”
Could violence in games or on TV make children feel less safe, and see the world as a scarier place? A quarter of the teens we surveyed (24% of boys and 26% of girls) reported being afraid of getting hurt by someone at school at least once in the previous month. One in three girls and almost one in four boys didn’t feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood at night. However, we didn’t find any significant link between game play and perceived danger.
Boys in several of our focus groups were more concerned about violence on television news than about gore in video games. For some, TV news violence could make video game violence more upsetting.
Ryan: “I don’t really think video games will influence kids as much as, like, the news. That can influence kids, and that’s real.”
Researcher: “How do you think kids who watch a lot of news might feel different about the world?”
Ryan: “Like, I don’t like to watch the news.”
Shawn: “I don’t either.”
Ryan: “I’ll tell my dad to shut it off, if I’m in the same room, or I’ll just leave.”
Researcher: “But, how does that make you feel, when you watch the news?”
Ryan: “Well, I play video games, and I go, ‘Oh, that stuff won’t happen.’ And if I see it happen on the news, it kind of freaks me out, cause, like, I just….”
Researcher: “Like, ‘Oh, but it’s not a fantasy after all’?”
Shawn: “It’s scary, ’cause you don’t feel safe.”
Parents don’t generally think about news as harmful to children, or that children even watch news programs. But surveys show that children and teens watch TV news regularly; sometimes, they just happen to be in the room when an adult turns the news on. A child who sees a lot of violence on television, whether it’s Law & Order reruns or news programs, is more likely to see the world as a scary place with lurking dangers far out of proportion to reality. But realistic depictions of violence, such as those on the news, are thought to be more likely to scare or desensitize children. As one child told us, “In video games, you know it’s fake.”
Given that older children and teens believe that news represents reality, and that TV news programs increasingly show graphic or sensationalized violence, there is a real risk of harm. Parents can help by keeping track of their kids’ exposure to TV news, and helping them put it into context—for example, that stories get on the news because they are rare, and that events on the news—whether it’s losing your house to a tornado or winning the lottery—are not likely to happen to them.
Research on television coverage of war shows that children of different ages are upset by different aspects, with younger ones more bothered by the visual images and teens by the complex issues, such as morality and justice, that are raised by news events.