Tag Archives: kids

Kids, toy guns and violent play: The story of one mother who changed her mind

Photo by Flickr user Steven Ha.

In our constant effort to keep kids from growing up to be violent thugs, we do a lot of things. We don’t let them play with toy weapons. We cut back on the first-person shooters. We divert them from “cowboys and indians.” But should we?

Over at The Atlantic, one mom, Christine Gross-Loh, writes about moving to Tokyo with her husband and two kids, and discovering that kids there engage in lots of (toy) gunplay, and adults don’t seem to worry about it. And although violent crime is on the rise in Japan, or at least was two years ago, it’s still much less than we see in America — or even many American states.

What Gross-Loh saw made her wonder if Americans’ choice to restrict kids’ violent play is the right approach. In fact, she strongly suggests that it isn’t:

Although many of us in America worry that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, the research doesn’t bear this out. In fact, it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. As Mechling explains, using the theories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, when children are playing with toy guns, they do so within a play frame they have created, one in which “a shooting is not a shooting.” Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play, while to American adults–especially in the post-Columbine or Newtown era–gun play is violence.

Beyond that, stifling boys in particular from engaging in the kind of play they’re most drawn to may be setting them back, she says:

When children are engaged in play they choose, they are more engaged and motivated to sustain it for longer. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play. The British government, in fact, concerned by a pattern of preschool boys falling behind girls in part due to zero-tolerance policies that had led teachers to curb any hint of boisterous play, advised preschools to allow boys to play with toy weapons and other play of their choosing, since the research suggests that acknowledging their interests will help them feel more engaged in school and improve their academic performance.

The whole thing is worth a read. As the parent of a young, boisterous child, it’s giving me a lot to think about. If you’re interested in a deeper look at children’s need for aggressive and violent imaginative play, check out Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters.

Kids keep telling us that heavy metal is good for them. So why don’t we listen?

Heavy metal: it’s good for your kid. Photo by Flickr user rolle-.

Lately, there’s been a spate of commentaries on heavy-metal music, particularly from young fans who want to sing its praises. On this, my 200th post for Backward Messages, I wanted to share some of those perspectives. After all, it’s not like, in 2012, America is suddenly celebrating metal music as a teen passion.

The first comes from Ivan Maheca, writing for MyHighSchoolJournalism.org:

It is time for people to see and appreciate the beauty of this music because it does have it. Metal musicians, according to people who have studied music appreciation and who know about music, have more talent and are capable of playing almost any other genre and style of music there is. Musically Metal has been underestimated as merely “noise” but in reality it is harmony and melody that simply defies the logic and laws of music, therefore under-seen as just noise by those who close their mind to a whole new world of expression.

When I researched my book, many of the kids and adults I talked to said one of the top misconceptions about metal is that it’s just noise, or that it takes zero skill to play. On the contrary, its virtuosity appeals to many young fans — and inspires some of them to take up instruments, and even form bands.

Another common misconception is that metal makes kids depressed or angry. Actually, many find that it brings them out of such moods, to a place of calm. It gives them what they need to feel like they can tackle the world again. Here’s Claire Martens, talking about how that happened for her:

I clung to music in my deepest moments. It was a constant in my life, something I depended on when nothing seemed certain or predictable. Even today, when I really don’t want to do something, I put on a good hard-kicking, air-punching album, very loudly, and allow it to invigorate me or cradle me, or be whatever it is I need it to be.

(Full disclosure: Claire links to Backward Messages in her post.)

Claire suggests that parents introduce young kids to metal, in order to broaden their budding musical palates: “Not only will your kids develop discerning musical tastes and an ear to make any music producer proud, but will live to be well-adjusted creatures.”


With so many articulate teens and former teens singing heavy metal’s praises, why don’t more people listen to them?

British teachers say children’s play is more violent than ever. So what’s wrong with that?

British teachers say video games cause kids to play more aggressively. What are they missing? Photo by Flickr user wsilver.

The battle for children’s well-being is never-ending. While American Congresspeople consider a warning label on virtually all video games, a group of British teachers has issued new warnings blaming violent video games for aggressive behavior among their students.

Late last month, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claimed that such games were damaging the “tender young minds” of children. Then, in a speech to the union’s annual conference last week, former ATL president said violent video games (she called them “horrific”) were responsible for an increase in schoolyard aggression.

Let’s look a little more closely at what they’re saying:

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “I think what we are talking about, first of all, is the amount of time children spend locked in their room. The fact that children spend hours locked in their rooms playing computer games, which means they’re not interacting, they’re not playing and not taking exercise.”

Okay. So it sounds like she’s concerned that kids aren’t getting outside to play and roam around. Right?

Mrs. Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary’s CofE Primary School in Keighley, West Yorkshire, says her class of four and five-year-olds was seen in the playground “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” to mimic scenes from violent games.

She adds: “I began to reflect on what children have been playing over the last few years and realised we have noticed a marked increase in the aggression in general.

“We all expect to see rough and tumble but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping etc. in the classroom for no particular reason.”

Hmm. So is the problem that they aren’t getting out and playing? Or is the problem that, when they are getting out and playing, they’re being rougher than the teachers expect? Is the problem that they’re not interacting with other kids, or is the problem that, when they are interacting, they’re doing so in a way that the teachers don’t understand?

There is certainly latitude for teachers to recognize when certain types of behavior — bullying, for example — is hurting a child. However, there’s plenty of latitude as well for kids to play, consensually, in ways that look pretty aggressive to outsiders.

To me, that first description of their play — “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” — sounds kind of fun. It sounds like kids, playing and interacting consensually with each other.

Gerard Jones addressed this issue in his wonderful book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence:

The benefits of rough-and-tumble play are well documented. It can be annoying for parents, it can get out of hand and lead to head bumps, but most authorities agree that it’s normal, healthy, and generally conducive to more confident kids. Profiles of violent adolescents don’t generally show any exorbitant amount of aggressive play early in life and, in fact, often show the opposite: violent teenagers often had trouble bonding with peers in normal childhood play.

Certainly video games — along with television, film, and books — spark the imagination and inform the kind of playing that kids will engage in. But what these teachers aren’t proving, to any degree, is that this kind of aggressive play is hurting anybody.

It may very well be that these teachers, either disturbed by the kids’ enjoyment of these games or unable to curtail it, are grasping at ways to control what they don’t understand. Until they can show that what they’re seeing is truly harmful, I’d suggest not giving their “warnings” too much credence. From what I can tell, these kids are having a good time — and learning in the process.

WSJ: video games are good for you (even kids)

New academic research says video games, even violent video games, change brains — for the better. Photo by Flickr user Patrick Denker.

This week, the Wall Street Journal published a roundup of positive video-game research, and its arguments are compelling: video games are good for you.

Among other things, it addresses findings that people who play video games regularly have much faster decision-making skills, that women gamers gave improved spacial-manipulation skills, and that kids who play games are more creative.

But it also contains a couple of great tidbits that we’ve discussed at Backward Messages, including:

The violent action games that often worry parents most had the strongest beneficial effect on the brain. “These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing,” said cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, who studies the effect of action games at Switzerland’s University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York.

Now, other researchers have studied whether video games cause brain changes and argued that they do — implying the changes are worse. Not everyone in the field agrees:

“Videogames change your brain,” said University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green, who studies how electronic games affect abilities. So does learning to read, playing the piano, or navigating the streets of London, which have all been shown to change the brain’s physical structure.

And, as WSJ writer Robert Lee Holtz points out, “The vast majority of the research did not directly compare gaming with hours of other intense, mental activities such as solving math equations.”


It’s clear that the direction of video-game research is changing, but is it changing fast enough? Can it overcome the popular opinion that games (especially violent video games) are at best an entertaining distraction, and at worst a training camp for future mass murderers? Holtz digs into that issue a little, too:

“There has been a lot of attention wasted in figuring out whether these things turn us into killing machines,” said computational analyst Joshua Lewis at the University of California in San Diego, who studied 2,000 computer game players. “Not enough attention has been paid to the unique and interesting features that videogames have outside of the violence.”

I will say my usual caveats, that no studies are perfect, all of them have flaws and limitations, and the WSJ doesn’t link directly to any of the ones it mentions. But someday we’ll recognize that these games aren’t poison — they are, in fact, nourishment — and articles like this one will help change attitudes in that direction.

How (not) to talk to kids about video games

The family that games together, stays together. Photo by Flickr user sean dreilinger.

A couple of articles have come over the proverbial wire this week, offering advice to parents whose kids play video games. The pieces couldn’t be more different.

In the Vancouver Observer, teacher Howard Eaton uses an Angry-Birds-obsessed youth as a jumping-off point for a neutral-to-negative treatise on kids and video games. He reminds a pair of worried parents about the dopamine effects of video gaming, then meanders into the concept of whether doing “too much of something” (can that be measured objectively?) can indicate addiction.

I know that I often ask myself if my children’s video gaming activity is useful or productive. I find myself saying, “Isn’t there something else you could be doing?” You see, I don’t have any interest in video gaming. None. No interest. I can’t understand how it could be at all interesting. I then expand my remarkable reasoning by saying to myself, “What a waste of time.” I put my own need for valuing your time with productive activities onto my children and then judge for them what is a productive use of time. Simple. I know best, right?

Of course, if you don’t understand someone’s interest in something, then any amount of time spent with it can seem like “too much.” And no, Eaton doesn’t “know best,” as he next refers to that murky neuroscience study that showed that playing video games changed gamers’ brains — temporarily — without acknowledging that just about anything we learn to do will change our brains, because that’s how brains work.

He does acknowledge that video games can serve as stress relief for troubled teen minds — but then suggests that “soccer, swimming, gymnastics, and photography” might be preferable. Remember, this is a guy who doesn’t understand the appeal of video games. Of course he’s going to recommend something else.

He does linger for a moment on studies that show the benefits of video games, but then veers straight back into the question of violent video games and teens. Then, he does another promising thing: asks his own teen what he thinks. And his son gives some smart, if cautious, advice:

“Video games and children has been a somewhat controversial subject for some time now. Parents no doubt frequently ask themselves “should my child be playing this game?” As far as I’m concerned it all depends on the maturity level of the individual child. Does he/she understand the difference between the game and reality, and does he/she have a strong moral compass?

Meanwhile, over at Forbes.com, E.D. Cain talks about how to talk to kids about video games when you’re a hardcore gamer yourself. His kids are too young yet to be gamers, but the question is weighing on his mind. He expresses his conflict in a tongue-in-cheek way:

By the time my kids are old enough to play with me we’ll be on Modern Warfare 8 and Killzone 6 and the violence will all be much more lush and realistic because we’ll be playing on next-gen consoles with Avatar-like graphics.

In the meantime, I’ll have to think about how to talk to them about the things they see not just in games but in movies and elsewhere. As John notes in his piece, they’re going to see this stuff whether or not we let them. The important thing is that you’re able to talk to them about it.

I agree, that is the important thing. I wonder, if you don’t spend time with your kids’ games, if you instead look down your nose at them and wonder why games are so interesting, how you can honestly have that conversation.

Here’s some “interfaith” violent-video-game fearmongering for you — happy holidays!

Should the absence of good science be reason enough to keep kids from playing violent video games? Photo by Flickr user scottfidd.

Just in time for holiday gift-unwrapping, two members of the Interfaith Social Justice Committee for Temple Emanu-El and St. Martha Catholic Church — in Sarasota, Florida — have penned a scaremongering editorial urging parents to keep kids from violent video games at all costs: “Do not purchase them, return those received as gifts, destroy or give away any currently owned; and deny the right to play them wherever you live.”

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog scanning the studies that suggest both positive and negative consequences from playing violent video games. Most recently, I looked at a Swedish study that said, decisively, the jury’s still out on violent gaming and its effect (if any) on young people. So why do Frank Schaal and John McGruder say parents should keep their kids from video games at all costs?

Well, they start with throwing science and reason right out the window:

More detailed studies of video games and their psychological effects are warranted, but as responsible adults, can we afford to wait? There may be no more causal relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior than there was between a moral crisis and the hip gyrations of Elvis in the 1950s; then again, 1950s research about cigarettes was also inconclusive.

That’s … sort of a good point. But their missive goes quickly downhill from there:

We know these facts: Award-winning video games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” thrive on murder, theft and destruction. Gamers increase their chances of winning by making a virtual visit to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged.

… Actually, that isn’t true. It’s true that GTA allows you to do this, if you choose, but it isn’t required to do so in order to advance the game. In the scenario they describe, you break even at best; prostitutes in GTA, as in real life, cost money. (And let’s not even get into the idea that visiting a sex worker is somehow wrong. It’s illegal, yes, but that’s another matter.)

And high school students who committed mass murders were heavy gamers; some even customized the game “Doom” to eerily match the crimes they committed.

… That’s also not true. According to the Secret Service, “Only 1 in 8 school shooters showed any interest in violent video games; only 1 in 4 liked violent movies.” In fact, school shooters are much less interested in video games and violent video games than their peers. At least one study has suggested that juvenile criminals might be less likely to harm people if they’re busy playing video games instead, getting their aggressions out virtually rather than in reality.

Schall and McGruder cap their nonsense with this frightening line of argument:

The consequences of this pollution contribute to the degeneration of society. Bullying, fighting, gang warfare, and other aggressive crimes, including murder, are committed by young people, concomitantly spreading destruction and devaluing the gifts of life and freedom. Inevitably, many youths are incarcerated, often with long sentences and always with life-altering ramifications. In Florida alone, close to 100 men are now serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were young.

While it’s true that juveniles are going to prison for crimes they committed, there’s still no evidence that it’s video games that put them there. For those who did enjoy a game or two, there were many other factors — from upbringing and trauma to mental health and desperation — that were much more prominent in these criminals’ lives. Even teen-killer “expert” Phil Chalmers — who thinks video games do contribute to delinquency — says it’s one factor among many.

So, no, parents don’t need to worry. They don’t need to start burning video games like they’re books or records. They can let their kids play games, keep an eye on them, and relax.

Study: it’s probably not the violent video games making your kid aggressive

A new Swedish study finds no reason to blame video games for kids’ anger and aggression. Photo by Flickr user mdanys.

Those Swedes sure do things differently, what with the neutrality and the guaranteed school placement for young kids and the crappy science top-ranked science programs.

Maybe that explains how they looked at the same research that led American scientists to believe video games are harmful to kids, and come out with the completely opposite conclusion.

Here’s what happened: the Swedish Media Council looked at more than 100 studies of kids, violent video games, and aggression published between 2000 and 2011. At first blush, their findings look the same: they found a statistically significant link between violent gaming and aggressive behavior.

However, they don’t think the games have anything to do with the behavior:

Many of the studies use different methods to measure aggression, many of which lack a clear connection to violent behaviour.

In addition, a great deal of the research exploring causal links between violent computer games and aggressive behaviour “suffer from serious methodological deficiencies” and don’t provide sufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship.

The few studies that have attempted to examine other causes of aggression found that factors, such as poor physical health or family problems, can explain both violent behaviour and a propensity to play violent computer games.

(Emphasis mine.)

According to a statement from the council, “there is no evidence that violent computer games cause aggressive behaviour … If research can’t provide any simple answers about how games make children aggressive, perhaps we adults should stop judging the games children play based on whether they are violent or not.”

Those wacky Swedes. Who’s going to believe that, right?

I’d love to do a more detailed analysis of the study (PDF) and its methodology, but unfortunately, I don’t speak Swedish. And, admittedly, I am skeptical of studies-of-other-studies because I feel as though they can replicate the same biases of the original studies. In this case, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

So, who is the Swedish Media Council, then? In America, a group like that would be an independent firm, maybe something like Common Sense Media (which, by the way, has come out against violent video games for kids.) “The Swedish Media Council is a center for information on children and young people’s use of media such as the Internet, computer games, film, and TV. The Media Council is part of the Swedish Government’s Ministry of Culture and located in Stockholm.”

So they’re a government-funded agency. And they’re saying violent video games don’t hurt kids. And the folks saying this come from a country that puts some of the biggest emphasis on science, research, and innovation in the world.

I dunno. Should we believe them?