3 Horrific Things Violent Social Media Teaches Kids

by | Jul 13, 2016 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness

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Tensions have been high across the country these past days and weeks after a series of separate and deadly police shootings. And then came the targeted execution of police officers in Dallas.

After one shooting by a police officer at a routine traffic stop at Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a man’s fiancee streamed his death live via Facebook. Over 5.6 million people since have watched his death and heard his girlfriend’s four-year old daughter sitting in the backseat tell her mother, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”

A day later the murder of Dallas police offers by a sniper was filmed by a thirteen-year-old.

We used to read about such troubling incidents in our newspapers or watch breaking news on our televisions that were filmed by professional news crews. No more. As apps like Facebook Live and Periscope explode in popularity, hundreds of millions of citizens can shoot video images at a moment’s notice.  We now view live feeds of violent, graphic shootings, bombings, and deaths that are posted on social media for all the world to see-including our kids. And we watch them over and over again.

This week I was asked by WGN-TV to weigh in on the effect of viewing violent social media. [“Midday Fix: Unselfie Author Michele Borba, Ed.D. Weights in On the Impact of Social Media and Recent Shootings,”] It’s important that we understand how such images can alter our capacity to empathize and our view of the world.We also must remember that our children are watching.

3 Ways New Social Media Can Affect Empathy

Today’s news delivery has dramatically altered and those changes will affect our abilities to empathize. It’s why we must protect our kids from viewing violent, graphic images.

1.Images More Graphic, Detailed and Violent

News feeds just two decades ago when I raised my own sons  were far less graphic. Even during the coverage of  9-11, we weren’t privy to viewing actual deaths of victims in front of their families or seeing their faces. Today’s news images are not only more graphic, but far more personal. Names, faces, and stories of victims and even seeing their slow, painful deaths  are the new norm. Just this week alone thousands watched Philander Castile bleed from gunshot wounds and then die in the car while his fiancé described the shooting. Hundreds of children also watched his horrific death and shared his girlfriend’s pain.

2. Images Unedited and Appear Without Warning

Troubling news stories once came with verbal and written warning from news outlets. “What you’re about to see is disturbing, and should be viewed with caution.” Graphic stories were also filtered by news divisions or viewed in control rooms by film crews prior to airing. Today’s news feeds are feed instantly without editing, and in some cases news anchors view the video for the first time with their viewers.

3. More Difficult  to Protect Kids

Parents back when were able to find the remote and push the off switch on troubling news. Most kids today are not viewing news from their family room, but on their Smartphones and Tablets outside their homes.

Those three changes increase the risk of violent social media impacting our children’s social and emotional well-being. It’s also why it’s crucial that we all understand the effect violent media exposure can have on children. Here is the Reality Check:

Possible Negative Results of Violent Social Media

1. Children May Become Less Empathetic to Others’ Pain and Suffering 

A large body of research on media violence conclude that such content diminishes children’s capacity to show concern for others or empathize. Here is just one study that shows the danger:

study by psychologists, Ronald Drayman and Margaret Thomas found that children who have been exposed to more violent programing are less likely to help young children who are in trouble or show care and concern. The researchers randomly divided third and fourth grade girls and boys into groups. One group viewed a cowboy film that depicted many violent events; the other did not. The children were led to believe that they were responsible for monitoring the behavior of a group of younger children whom they could see on a videotape monitor. The younger children on the videotape played quietly, and then became progressively more angry and destructive with each other until a physical fight broke out.

Researchers found that children exposed to the aggressive film were also much more likely to tolerate physical aggression, and took longer to seek adult help than the kids who did not see the film. They also concluded that children exposed to media violence may be more likely to consider fighting a normal way to resolve conflicts or be more desensitized to aggression and less likely to be aroused by violence. Keep in mind that this was a cowboy movie and not a live shooting, murder or bombing.

My colleague, Madeline Levine, points out in, See No Violence, that almost without exception we should be concerned about our children’s media diets. “Viewing violence makes children more aggressive, more restless, more fearful, less creative, and less sensitive….No study has ever found any benefit to children from watching violence.”  

REALITY CHECK:  Violent social media can desensitize our children to care about others and interferes with a child’s capacity for empathy.

2. Children May Become More Fearful of the World 

If you’re feeling a little anxious after viewing the news these past days you’re not alone. Pam Ramadan‘s research from University of Bradford concludes that “viewing violent news events via social media can cause people to experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Her study showed unedited violent stories and graphic images previously viewed by the public to adults (the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, school shootings and suicide bombers). Almost one quarter of adult participants scored high on clinical measures of PTSD.

Another study found that many journalists working in newsroom settings and regularly exposed to violent, uncensored video footage also scored higher on indexes of PTSD.

But children are effected as well. Studies finds that kids who viewed repeated images of the Gulf War, 9-11 and Oklahoma bombings reported higher incidents of stress, anxiety and PTSD symptoms. What’s more, they also begin to view the world as a “mean and scary place.”

REALITY CHECK: Media violence encourages attitudes that are distorted, fearful and pessimistic and increase anxiety, stress and PTSD-like symptoms.

3. Children May Be More Likely to Behave in More Aggressive or Harmful Ways 

Among the most famous study in aggression is by Albert Bandura The renowned psychologist found that children learn to be aggressive by witnessing and  initiating others who act aggressively. And if those “models” are rewarded for their violent behavior, kids are even more likely to imitate them.

Two psychologists, Friedrich and Stein also found that preschool children exposed to aggressive cartoons had far less ability to tolerate delay and were more apt to rely on aggression as a way to solve problems.

Psychologists Douglas Gentile and Brad Bushman (and others) concluded that exposure to media violence is clearly one factor that can contribute to aggressive behavior.

REALITY CHECK: Media violence can encourage children to act more aggressively, desensitize them to real-life violence, and adopt the view that aggression is an acceptable way  to deal with life.

Four Crucial Take-Aways

The effects of viewing media violence on children should make adults ere on the cautious side when it comes to allowing kids’ to have free range of Internet devices and Smartphones. The four take-aways for research:

• We must make a stronger and more intentional effort to cultivate our children’s empathetic abilities.

• We must closely monitor our children’s viewing habits as well as our own.

• We must protect our kids from viewing violent images and talk to our kids about the tragic events that have transpired over the last days.

• We must offer our children a view that the world is a good and caring place.

At stake? Our children’s emotional and moral lives.

Michele Borba

Featured image credited to Diamond Reynolds posted on Facebook


unselfieFor the past decade I’ve research violence and hate and how to cultivate compassion, courage and empathy in children. I’ll be sharing those strategies culled from the latest rearch in upcoming blogs which are all from my newly-released book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World  now available in digital, audio and hardcover.

I hope you join me in what I call, the “UnSelfie Revolution” to raise kids who think “We” not “Me” so they have the courage, conviction and compassion to stand up and support others. And it all starts with empathy!

Join me on Twitter @MicheleBorba or on my website, Micheleborba.com