A new study in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that in comparison to other factors, exposure to media violence is a poor predictor of youth violence. The study focused on violence in television and video games, comparing it to a range of other influences, including: delinquent peer associations, exposure to physical domestic violence in the home, family conflict, neighborhood stress, antisocial personality traits, and depression level.
The subjects were 603 predominantly Hispanic children, ages 10-14, and their parents or guardians. Dr. Christopher Ferguson from Texas A&M University, one of the study’s authors, described the results to GamePolitics.com:
We assessed results across seven separate measures of youth violence and serious youth aggression, including the Child Behavior Checklist aggression and rule-breaking scales as reported by both children and their parents, involvement in violent and non-violent criminal behaviors and bullying behaviors against peers. We found that depressed mood and association with delinquent peers were the strongest and most consistent risk factors for youth violence across outcome measures. Parents’ use of verbal cruelty in domestic relationships and the child’s antisocial personality traits were also reasonably strong predictors of violent behavior. By contrast video game violence exposure and television violence exposure were not found to be predictors of youth violence.
Aside from the results about TV and video games, I find it interesting that parents’ use of “verbal cruelty” was a stronger predictor of youth violence than physical domestic abuse, which came out lower on the list. Most telling of all, association with delinquent peers was the strongest predictor, edging out everything except preexisting depression by a significant margin.
The peer result jibes with controversial research indicating that parental influence is less influential on children than peer influence. Psychologist Judith Rich Harris set off a firestorm when she argued that parents matter much less, at least when it comes to determining the behavior of their children, than is typically assumed, and that their peer group is far more important. Her book, The Nurture Assumption, contends that we parents think that we pull more weight with our kids than we really do, all the while their peer group is shaping their personality and influencing their behavior. We might be able to stop them from playing Grand Theft Auto or watching 24, but when they’re not in the house, all bets are off.
Unsettling as that news may be, it does help put the emphasis for parents more on what matters: finding out who their kids are hanging around with and whether they should be. That’s much harder than policing TV and video games, though convenient scapegoats they may be.