Walking out of our downtown theater, my husband said he wished he could erase the movie we had just seen from his consciousness. He didn’t want the disturbing images stored in his head. One of the ways we try to rid ourselves of unpleasant images on violent TV or in movies is by telling ourselves what we’ve seen isn’t real, or at least not in our lives. That’s a technique we traditionally use with children too.
Movie going is a time-honored way of spending family time together. Dads particularly love going to Spiderman and Batman movies, characters they enjoyed as children. Most of us lament the fact that family movies have so much more violence and negative imagery than they did in the past. But what can we do? Conscientious parents explain to their children, “You don’t have to be afraid. That’s just a movie; it’s not real.”
Most of us feel reassured by the confidence that our children won’t grow up to be violent. After all, we didn’t. There’s also a common assumption that children’s minds have changed with the times. Aren’t today’s children more sophisticated and able to handle more exciting entertainment? Not according to important new neurological research. Evidence shows that children’s brains are not able to distinguish between fictional and actual violence. Scientists have found that particular parts of the brain are activated when children see violence on screen. The images are stored in the same part of the brain where soldiers hold memories of actual battles. Brain researchers have found that the brain takes violence seriously on screen and off. In addition, having parents nearby or hearing explanations about what’s happening doesn’t change the neurological memory.
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It feels unfair that parents and grandparents have to bear the responsibility of worrying what a TV program or movie will contain. In the past, we were able to trust that Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street wouldn’t create a traumatic memory. Young children often act out aggression they’ve seen on TV or in a Batman movie. But of even more concern, their minds are often preoccupied with the scary images their brains have assimilated as real. Children talk about them repetitively and anxiously. Why can’t they just understand that the evil queen in Snow White won’t be offering them a poisoned apple? Because their brains won’t let them.
What’s a mom or a dad to do? It’s hard to turn off the TV. But parents who do find that their children actually occupy themselves for longer times in more creative ways. Many parents also find it helpful to share reviews of movies and resources on positive programming. For example, Scholastic offers films made from high quality children’s books. Most importantly, we can explore ways for children to relax and feel safe away from electronic stimulation, to enjoy the rich colors and sensations of nature, and to spend their time in active play animated by their own imaginations and childhood wonder.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.