How Virtual Violence Affects Your Child

Kids spend hours on average in front of screens each day. Here’s how to help develop healthier media habits.

boy, watching TV, TV, watching, horizontal, sitting

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on April 29, 2022

As if parents need another reason to worry about their kids, children aged 8 to 12 years are spending an average of 4 to 6 hours a day staring at televisions, tablets, computers, and smart phone screens, according to 2020 figures from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Teenagers may be spending up to 9 hours daily looking at screens.

The picture is not much prettier for younger kids. Pediatric guidelines generally recommend that infants younger than 2 years old should avoid screens altogether, while children aged 2 to 5 should spend no more than 1 hour per day on screens. Yet a 2022 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that only 35.6 percent of children between 2 and 5 were meeting the guideline of 1 hour per day or less of screen time. Only 24.7 percent of those younger than 2 years were meeting the recommendation to avoid screen time entirely.

To make matters worse, virtual violence—violence that’s not experienced physically but still leaves a psychological impact—is staring children in the face on a regular basis. And it does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.

A 2021 study published in the journal PLOS One analyzed 33 popular television dramas to study the rates at which violence and use of firearms were depicted on TV. Researchers found that gun violence on TV doubled from 2000 to 2018, while noting that the increased gun violence on TV paralleled the use of guns for U.S. homicides in people 15 to 24 years old over roughly the same period.

How does virtual violence affect kids?
Violent games and shows make plotlines and intense action all too real for children. Games and television shows with first-person shooting are especially dangerous not just for young children, but for older kids and teenagers, too, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Some might be more affected than others by the health risks linked to virtual violence. Excessive media use—violent or non-violent—may lead to:

  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety, fear, or distress
  • Obesity

Aggression is also a hot topic when it comes to kids and virtual violence. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found about 5 percent of adolescent aggression has origins in violent media. The research team suggested that violent video games can encourage children and teens to mimic aggressive behavior and to adopt more aggressive thoughts and attitudes. (Other factors as well, such as a child’s upbringing, come into play in the formation of aggressive personalities.)

The researchers also found that adolescents who come from less supportive family environments were more likely to show anger and to be more accepting of using violence. Meanwhile, children who come from more supportive family environments seemed to be less affected by the violence portrayed in video games and had a better understanding that violence is morally wrong.

A 2021 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking studied the effects of gaming on aggressive thoughts in 300 children. They found that boys were more likely than girls to develop aggressive habits and beliefs from playing video games.

If you’re distressed by the amount of violent media your children consume and the implications it may have, here are five ways you can encourage and enforce healthier media habits:

Check out what your child is watching. The only way to know how violent your child’s favorite games or television shows may be is to experience them for yourself. Experts recommend that parents co-play and co-watch so they can evaluate the media and determine if it is too violent or sexually mature. The AAP recommends checking out the ratings for video games to know if they are appropriate.

Implement screen-free areas and monitor usage. Parents should be mindful when it comes to television and screen placement at home. It’s best to leave televisions out of kids’ bedrooms, and to turn off the tube during dinner and other family events. Always make sure screen time ends at least 1 hour before bedtime.  

The AAP advises that screen time does not reduce the 8 to 12 hours most children need for sleep each night or the minimum of 1 hour of exercise they should be getting each day.

Enforce time limits. The AAP recommends that children should not use the television for more than 1 to 2 hours a day. This includes watching shows, movies, or playing video games. The AACAP advises that children between 2 to 5 years of age should only be allowed 1 daily hour of non-educational screen time and 3 hours of it on weekends.

If you have young children aged 18 to 24 months, the AAP suggests limiting their screen time to high-quality programs only and always watching with them. Kids younger than 18 months should have minimal screen time in general because this age is critical for brain development. Children this young should only be allowed to use media for occasional video-chatting, such as a quick hello to long-distance relatives or family friends on apps such as FaceTime or Zoom.

Use the V-chip on your television. Since 2000, all televisions larger than 13 inches sold in the United States have come installed with a V-chip, a device that allows parents to restrict what their child sees on television. Every television show has a rating based on violence, sex, and language. The V-chip monitors and interprets the rating code when deciding to block the show from appearing on your television.

Encourage other activities. Kids are brimming with energy and sitting on the couch in front of a video game doesn’t allow them to move their bodies, burn calories, and explore the physical world. Try to get your child to head outdoors, get some exercise, try a new hobby, or pick up a book.

Article sources open article sources

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Screen Time and Children. Page last reviewed February 2020.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Where We Stand: Screen Time. Page last reviewed November 1, 2016.
McArthur BA, Volkova V, Tomopoulos S, Madigan S. Global prevalence of meeting screen time guidelines among children 5 years and younger: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics. 2022; 176(4):373-383.
Jamieson PE & Romer D. The association between the rise of gun violence in popular US primetime television dramas and homicides attributable to firearms, 2000–2018. PLoS one. 2021; 16(3), e0247780.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Beyond Screen Time: A Parent’s Guide to Media Use. Page last reviewed 2021.
Shao R & Wang Y. The relation of violent video games to adolescent aggression: An examination of moderated mediation effect. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019; 10, 384.
Zhang Q, Cao Y, Tian J. Effects of violent video games on aggressive cognition and aggressive behavior. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 2021; 24(1), 5-10.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Pulling the Plug on TV Violence. Page last reviewed 2021.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Video Games: Establish Your Family’s Own Rating System. Page last reviewed March 15, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early Brain Development. Page last reviewed March 25, 2022.
Federal Communications Commission. The V-Chip: Options to Restrict What Your Children Watch on TV. Date Last Updated/Reviewed: December 10, 2019.

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