Media Characters Who Use Guns May Encourage Kids to Use Guns
Our research suggests that seeing characters use guns has an effect on children.
Posted Jul 31, 2019
August 18th, 2018, 10:30 AM. First responders rush to a home in Louisville, Kentucky to find a 2-year-old boy, Montreal Dunn, with a gunshot wound to the head. Judging that it would take too long to wait for an ambulance, the toddler was rushed to the hospital in the back of a squad car. Later, he was pronounced dead. Though they began the investigation as a homicide, the police discovered that Montreal had accidentally shot himself with an unsecured firearm. Such shootings are far too common. In fact, two weeks later, it happened again. Tyree Flint, also 2, found a gun that a house guest had brought into his home and accidentally shot himself.
The sobering statistic is that about 50 children are shot with a firearm each day in the United States (US). As with both Montreal and Tyree, the shootings often occur because a child finds a firearm that is loaded and unsecured. In 2018, 73 children were killed with firearms—more than once a week. Children in the U.S. are at least 10 times more likely to be accidentally killed by firearms than children from other developed countries.
If children find an unsecured gun in a home, many factors can influence whether they will handle it. Our research has identified exposure to gun violence in the mass media (e.g., television, movies, video games) as one of those factors. Researchers typically define violence as any behavior intended to cause extreme physical harm (e.g., injury or death) to another person who does not want to be harmed. This definition of violence can also be applied to media violence, which is any behavior intended to cause extreme physical harm to another media character who does not want to be harmed. Media characters can be actual people, animals, realistic characters, fictitious characters, or cartoon characters.
Children often think media characters are cool, and they want to imitate their behavior. Previous research has shown that children who see movie characters smoke cigarettes are more likely to smoke themselves. Likewise, children who see movie characters drink alcohol are more likely to drink themselves. These findings follow directly from social learning theory, which proposes that children learn how to behave by observing and imitating the behavior of models. The models could be real people, or media characters—even fictitious ones. Children are especially likely to model dangerous behaviors.
Recent research from our lab tested the hypothesis, derived from social learning theory, that children who see media characters use guns are they more likely to use real guns themselves. We conducted two experiments, one depicting gun violence in movies and one depicting gun violence in video games. Each is described briefly below.
Violence is a common theme in movies, even in G-rated movies for general audiences. Violent movie characters often use guns, and they use guns more now than in the past. Indeed, the number of acts of gun violence in PG-13 films (for ages 13+) has nearly tripled since the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1985, and that trend continued through 2015. Since 2012, PG-13 movies have actually contained more acts of gun violence than R-rated movies (for ages 17+).
We conducted an experiment to test whether children who see movie characters use guns are more likely to use real guns themselves.[13, 14] The participants were 104 children ages 8-12, tested in pairs. The pairs of children knew each other (e.g., siblings, friends, cousins), and came to the lab together with a parent or guardian. Each child was paid $25. We told participants that we were interested in what kids like to do in their spare time, such as watching movies and playing with toys and games. First, they were randomly assigned to watch a 20-minute clip from a PG movie (National Treasure, 2004 or Rocketeer, 1991) with guns or the same clip with the guns edited out. (We could not use movies rated PG-13 or R because our participants were all under 13.) We used two films to increase the generalizability of our results. Because the results did not differ for the two films, we combined them. After watching the film, children rated how violent, exciting, and fun they thought the movie was, how much they felt part of the action, and how much they wanted to see the whole movie. As expected, the films with guns were rated to be more violent than films without guns. However, the films did not significantly differ on any other dimensions.
Next, children were told that they could play for 20 minutes with toys (e.g., Legos, Nerf guns and bullets) and games (e.g., Jenga, UNO card game, checkers). A cabinet in the room contained a real disabled 9-mm handgun that had been modified with a digital counter to record the number of times children pulled the trigger with enough force to fire the gun. The parents knew about the gun before consenting to participate, but the children did not. A hidden camera recorded their behavior.
As controls, we measured a number of variables that could influence how interested children were in firearms, including their gender, age, attitudes about guns (e.g., “Carrying a gun makes people feel safe”), their consumption of violent media (TV, films, video games), their level of aggressiveness (i.e., how often they engaged in aggressive behaviors such as yelling, arguing, kicking, shoving, hitting). Parents indicated whether and how many guns were in their home.
Of the 104 children, 75 (72 percent) found the gun. The two main outcomes were the number of seconds they held the gun (if at all), and the number of times they pulled the trigger. Children who watched the movie clip with guns held the handgun longer (53.1 vs. 11.1 seconds), and pulled the trigger more times (2.8 vs. 0.01 times) than those who saw the same movie clip without guns. Some children engage in very dangerous behaviors with the real gun, such as pulling the trigger while pointing the gun at themselves or their partner. One boy pointed the real gun out the laboratory window at people in the street.
Video Game Experiment
As with movies, violence is a common theme in video games. We conducted a follow-up experiment using video games. Participants were 220 children ages 8-12, also tested in pairs. They were randomly assigned to play one of three versions of the game Minecraft (2011) for 20 minutes: (1) a version in with the player could kill monsters with guns, (2) a version in which the player could kill monsters with swords, or (3) a nonviolent version with no weapons or monsters. Minecraft does not contain any blood and gore; it is a pixelated and stylized game. (We could not use video games rated “T” for teens ages 13+ or “M” for mature players ages 17+ because our participants were ages 8-12.) The two versions of Minecraft with weapons and monsters were rated as more violent than the version without weapons or monsters but were similar on other dimensions.
In the video game experiment, two guns were hidden in the toy cabinet so both children could handle a gun if they chose to do so. We included the same controls as in the movie experiment, plus whether children had taken a firearm safety class. As another main outcome, we analyzed trigger pulls while pointing the gun at a person (self or partner).
The results showed that children who played the video game with guns handled it longer (91.5 seconds vs. 71.7 seconds in the sword condition and 36.1 seconds in the nonviolent condition), pulled the trigger more times (10.1 times vs. 3.6 times in the sword condition and 3.0 times in the nonviolent condition), including at themselves or their partner (3.4 times vs. 1.5 times in the sword condition and 0.2 times in the nonviolent condition).
However, while all effects in the video game experiment were in the predicted direction, only the last was statistically significant.
Taken together, these studies suggest that exposure to violence in the media can increase children’s dangerous behavior around real firearms. Importantly, it appears that even “age-appropriate” depictions of media violence can produce these effects and after only 20 minutes of exposure. In our studies, children were asked to list their three favorite television programs, movies, and video games. Over 60% of the titles they listed were age-inappropriate (e.g., TV programs rated TV-14 or TV-MA, movies rated PG-13 or R, video games rated T or M). In addition, the exposure is likely to be much longer than 20 minutes. On average, American children consume 7.5 hours of entertainment media per day. More bloody and gory forms of violent media exposure over longer periods of time might produce even stronger effects than what we observed in our laboratory experiments.
And while other risk factors, such as socioeconomic status or exposure to real-world violence, are generally accepted as more influential risk factors for gun-related deaths than exposure to violent media, parents typically have much more control over their children’s media consumption than these other factors.
Of course, the problem of children handling unsecured firearms can be avoided altogether if they don’t have access to firearms. Perhaps the most important lesson of these studies is that you cannot guarantee how your child will react to seeing an unsecured gun, even if you have educated them on the subject. Many parents expressed to us that they were shocked to see their child handle a gun, saying that they were sure the child would have either left it alone or told an adult. Yet about half of the children in our studies handled the gun and fewer than half told an adult about it. The simple truth is that the only way to prevent the kind of tragedies that the Dunn and Flint families mentioned above went through is to not leave firearms unsecured in the home.
These studies were designed as experimental trials so that causal inferences could be made. The main weakness of these studies is that they were conducted in an artificial setting—a university laboratory. Although we tried to mimic a real-world setting (i.e., finding a gun hidden in a drawer), future research should replicate these findings in a more natural setting.
In summary, this research has two take-home messages: First, gun owners should secure their weapons. Guns are not toys for children to play with. Second, parents should monitor the media their children consume, because children who see media characters use guns may be more likely to use real guns themselves if they have the chance.
 Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Key gun violence statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics. The CDC defines "children" as ages 0-19. If "children" is defined as ages 1-17, 21 children are shot each year in the US.
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