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    Kids & Violence: First Imitation, Then Identification

    Excerpted from
    Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence
    By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Gloria DeGaetano

    The impact of violent imagery on children is best understood within the context of normal child development. Children are born with an instinctive capacity and desire to imitate adult behaviors. That infants can, and do, imitate an array of adult facial expressions has been demonstrated in newborns as young as a few hours old-before they are even old enough to know that they themselves have facial features that correspond with those they are observing and imitating. Babies as young as fourteen months old clearly observe and incorporate behaviors seen on television.

    Emotionally laden images are even more efficient at catching and holding the attention of youngsters than educational demonstrations. Because kids attend so readily to the visually exciting and emotional portion of the screen content, this violent imagery is so much more easily remembered and learned by children under eight or nine years old. They respond to emotional content with feelings such as fear and fright, but they are unable to put graphic visual images and the emotions they arouse within an understandable framework. Also, young children are unlikely to pick up on the subtlety of the images' mitigating information-such as negative motivations, punishment that occurs later in the program, or the suffering of victims-and put it into some kind of context.

    For example, there is the case of a preschooler who expressed fear and hostility toward black people after watching Roots on television with her family. After describing a vivid scene in which a slave gets repeatedly whipped, the child said that the man being whipped must be a very bad person, and therefore must be very scary.

    Young children have an instinctive desire to imitate the behavior of others, but they do not possess an instinct for gauging whether a behavior ought to be imitated. They will imitate anything, including behaviors most adults would regard as destructive and antisocial. Since youngsters do not have the brain capacity yet for analysis, evaluation, or moral judgment, they are developmentally unable to discern the difference between fantasy and reality; if they did, we wouldn't have too many kids believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Therefore, they are incapable of interpreting violent images, of making personal sense out of them.

    The inherent inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, although developmentally appropriate, means that, in the minds of young children, media violence is a source of entirely factual information regarding how the world works. Studies indicate that "real" to a young child appears to mean physically existing in the world. They may regard police dramas to be real because police officers do exist. One second-grade student in a study explained that the members of the Brady Bunch were real because "they have a refrigerator, and there are such things as refrigerators."

    And there is no limit to a child's credulity. For example, an Indiana school board had to issue an advisory that stated that there is no such thing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-that they do not exist. Too many children had been crawling down storm drains looking for them.

    When a young child sees somebody being shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it is actually happening. Imagine children of three, four, or five watching "splatter" movies in which they spend sixty minutes learning to relate to a cast of characters and then in the last sixty minutes of the movie they watch helplessly as their newfound friends are hunted down and brutally murdered. This is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing a child to a group of new friends, letting them play with those friends, and then butchering them in front the child. And this happens to many children again and again throughout their early development.

    While children experience cognitive confusion about what they see on the screen, that does not keep them from imitating violent behaviors. In fact, the more often children watch violent television programs and movies, the more likely it is that they will develop and sustain highly aggressive heroic fantasies for years to come. Then, in a vicious cycle, the children who create violent fantasy play and who identify with aggressive heroes are the ones most likely to be affected by media violence.

    Here's a scary scenario: A seven-year-old boy described a deliberate attempt to reduce his own fear by identifying with a character in A Nightmare on Elm Street. "It was easy," he said. "I pretended I was Freddy Krueger. Then I wasn't scared. Now, that's what I always do and I am never scared." Since identifying with an aggressive hero can increase real-life aggression, this tactic for reducing fear is chilling indeed.

    Learning is carried out in two stages: imitation and identification. At the beginning, learning comes through imitation; with enough repetition, identification takes place. As kids imitate the violence they see on-screen through imitative play, they are learning to identify themselves as perpetrators of violence ... from the very beginning of their lives! It has been found that the more unrealistic the character, the more preschoolers both want to be like that character and think they are like that character. Also, young children are more likely to choose fantasy heroes over real-life heroes in their play, more likely to engage in more heroic adventure play, and more likely to learn about heroes and play themes from television rather than from friends, siblings, or parents.

    Children with a propensity for violence usually have both learning and behavior problems and are labeled "difficult" by teachers and parents. From the onset of their formal schooling years they come to identify themselves as bullies and schoolyard thugs. They not only use violence as a mainstay of amusement and imitate it at every opportunity, but also identify themselves as violent people. Early childhood is a formative time of ego development. We all know an adult who doesn't believe us, no matter how much we tell them they are pretty, smart, and capable. They see themselves as ugly, stupid, inept. They see themselves that way largely due to the messages they received about themselves as children. Recurring childhood messages impress young minds. Once believed, they are very difficult to change later in life.

    Everything the young child experiences and learns is latent, ready for the right circumstance to trigger future behaviors. Serious violence is most likely to erupt at moments of severe stress-and it is precisely at such moments that adolescents and adults are most likely to revert to their earliest, most visceral remembrance of violence. Consider the power of such violent "imprinting" on a little boy who watches his dad beat his mom repeatedly.

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