Toddlers and young children who watch violent movies, including Halloween horror films, television shows or video games may be more likely to develop anxiety, sleep disorders, and aggressive and self-endangering behaviors. The Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), was presented on Oct. 28 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in San Diego.
"Watching 'Friday the 13th' with your child is probably not a good idea. Children under the age of 5 may be too young to actually watch and understand violent movies; however, they are psychologically affected by the scenes they are exposed to," says Dr. Daniel S. Schechter, the study's principal investigator and director of the Infant-Family Service at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry (in pediatrics) at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
"We found that even an excess of regular television watching is problematic," adds Schechter. "I would not recommend more than one to two hours a day for school-aged children and no more than 30 minutes a day for children under 6."
"It is important not only to follow the ratings guidelines, but to see the movie yourself before you see it with your child and consider how they will likely experience it at their age. Even some movies marketed to children can be inappropriate. When in doubt, parents should consult with other parents or a professional," continues Schechter.
There have even been cases of violence in the home that followed children playing violent video games. "Very young children are unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy," says Dr. Schechter.
The study followed 76 New York City mothers with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), finding that they watched more violent movies than their healthy counterparts; they also watched more television overall. Even though this study focused specifically on mothers with PTSD, the scientific literature supports deleterious effects of excessive television viewing and violent media viewing on young children at large. One interesting fact Schechter and colleagues reported was that mothers who were otherwise avoidant of reminders of their violent experiences were in many cases drawn to violent media.
"Paradoxically, mothers with violence-related PTSD, who wish to shield themselves and their children from violence, inadvertently expose themselves and their children to violence through movies, television and video games perhaps as a way of feeling a sense of control in the present over very frightening memories of out-of-control experiences," says Dr. Schechter. "While this phenomenon deserves further study, it may also be explained by an evolutionary impulse to warn their children of the dangers that they had faced in the world."
The mothers' PTSD, both treated and untreated, was due specifically to interpersonal violent experiences such as physical and sexual abuse and assault, and family violence exposure.
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The above story is based on materials provided by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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