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Media Violence and a Child's Developing Brain

Speaking at the Australian Council for Children and the Media’s conference last week, Dr Wayne Warburton, Deputy Director of the Children and Families Research Centre, summarised research demonstrating how violent media has an impact on the brain of a developing child.

“Clearly the developing brain is a miracle, and the capacity of the brain to change throughout the lifespan – neural plasticity – means that there is huge potential for people to change and become what they would like to. However this same capacity to learn and change comes with risks if one is consistently exposed to unhelpful influences. Many such influences on our children’s lives are out of our control, but mass media exposure is one area where we can make a difference. And knowing how media impacts the developing brain is a good place to start” said Dr Warburton.

Short Term Effects of Exposure to Violent Media

For up to fifteen minutes after people have consumed violent media, they are more likely to behave  aggressively, but we also know that repeated exposure has cumulative effects that impact on mild forms of aggression.  Effects include people being “more easily frustrated… and more likely to respond to conflict with aggression...”; probably, says Dr Warburton, because violent media “changes the way you view the world just subtly. You subtly start to think that the world is a bit more violent than it really is.” Many parents who have observed their children’s behaviour straight after watching violent and active media would be agreeing with Dr Warburton’s statement.

Children respond differently to violence depending on their developmental stage: younger children tend to be scared of things that are visually frightening because they can’t distinguish real from imaginary, whereas older children will be more scared of things that they can imagine happening to themselves. Dr Warburton gave the example of the recent fire at Mona Vale, Sydney, involving a petrol tanker bursting into flames on the road - older children exposed to that news might become anxious as they can imagine that event happening to them.

Brain Imaging Shows Changes in Child’s Brain Linked to Violent Media

Brain imaging studies by researchers interested in the effects of violent media look at two key areas of interest:

  • the brain’s frontal lobe to investigate short and long term ‘relaxations’ of the brain mechanisms that inhibit aggressive impulses (and allow us to think rationally), and
  • short and long term desensitisation to violence, particularly emotional desensitisation.

Professor John Murray, developmental psychologist, Kansas State University, studied media violence and its effect on children for well over thirty years.  In 2006, he conducted a study mapping children’s brains while they watched violent and non-violent media clips. The imaging study, involving children aged between 8 and 11, showed that the emotion centre (limbic system) of the brain that senses threat or danger was activated during the violent scenes. The imaging also showed activity in the pre-motor cortex (an area used to plan movement) and in the posterior cingulate area which stores long term memories of traumatic events.

Memories stored in the posterior cingulate area are easy for the brain to access – and this area is associated with trauma memory, flashbacks and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Professor Murray also found that the right section of the brain was selectively ‘recruited’ when watching violent media – this section is especially associated with thinking through consequences and inhibiting aggressive responses. In other words, FMRI imaging suggests that when a child watches violent media, there are real changes in the brain making a child more likely to behave aggressively.

Research into the long-term effects of exposure to violent media is more worrying. In a study by M. Stenziok and others in 2009, FMRI imaging showed lower cortical density in male adolescents who had more exposure to media violence than the average teenager; in other words, there was less development in the frontal lobe of the brain that helps people control impulses or inhibit behaviour. And in 2013, researchers at the School of Medicine at Indiana University, led by Dr T. Hummer found lower levels of white matter (crucial to good functioning of the brain), in young males who watched more television violence than a control group.

Desensitisation to Violence after Consuming Violent Media

Prolonged exposure to violent media has also been shown to cause emotional desensitisation: “your typical emotional response to other people’s emotion is diminished [and you] tolerate more violence in world around you” says Dr Warburton. The theory is that desensitisation occurs because there are changes in the way we think – we tend to think aggression is more socially acceptable than is actually the case.  Explaining that people with ongoing exposure to violent media “have more aggressive scripts for how to resolve conflict”, the warning for parents is that

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