In preparing for war, President Bush has made it clear that he appreciates the awesome nature of this decision. I trust he has considered the economic and political costs. No doubt he has taken into account that many people will be killed, and that the long-term effects can never be foreseen.
But has he considered the children?
Iraqi children live with a “great fear of war,” according to a report by the International Study Team, a group of experts on the psychological impact of war on children. They found 40 percent of the hundreds of children interviewed didn’t think life was worth living. This makes sense; war looms on their soil.
And American children are more than passive observers of events. When they observe aggressive language or behavior on television, they are at risk for long-term consequences.
In a study recently published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologists at the University of Michigan looked at the relationship between children’s exposure to television violence and their likelihood for aggressive behavior as adults. The researchers studied children growing up in the ’70s and ’80s and discovered that children’s exposure to media violence predicted aggressive behavior as young adults. Of all the factors that predicted adult aggression, by far the most influential was what children saw on television.
When I interviewed Dr. Rowell Huesmann, principal investigator, he said certain types of violence could put children at even more risk. “The most powerful effects are produced by programs that display a charismatic hero, with whom the child can identify, engaging in violent acts that seem completely justified – for example, to rid the world of bad people.”
Amy Jordan, director of research on aggression and the media at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the most important finding is that children who saw violence as justified and realistic were more likely to bring that aggressive behavior into adulthood.
The children tested were affected by shows like Starsky and Hutch, The $6 Million Man, and Roadrunner. Television is more violent today than it was in 1970. Even more dangerous, it shows the caretakers of our country threatening real violence.
These are people whom children are supposed to identify with, people seen as heroes and leaders. TV viewers see increasingly aggressive and threatening behavior. If war breaks out, they will see worse.
Children will witness American soldiers – heroes – committing acts of violence. When children see violence without seeing its consequences, they are much more likely to conclude that violence is acceptable. We will, understandably, celebrate our war heroes and rejoice in our victories. And in the process, what will kids learn about violence? Plenty.
According to the study, many will learn violence does not necessarily have grave consequences. Others will simply learn the world is frightening. And some children will become numb, which could be the most dangerous reaction. The phenomenon called “psychic numbing” involves suppressing feelings too overwhelming to manage. Frequently, people who suppress these feelings will have other symptoms, such as depression and eating or anxiety disorders.
What can we do as parents? Younger children need to be reassured that they will be safe. Limit their exposure to TV news and violence. Watch TV with your young children. Help them understand what is real and what is “pretend.” When they see violence, help them understand there are always consequences. Ask questions like: “I wonder if the other person is scared right now,” or “I wonder how that guy’s mother or father feels right now.”
Forever, our young men have been called upon to be warriors and to be willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. They have been taught to suppress feelings of vulnerability, sadness and fear. They have been taught that aggression, on the battlefield, basketball court or workplace, is good and will help them achieve. And in today’s world, our young women can also become warriors.
Sadly, we will always need warriors. Our young people will always be called upon to sacrifice their lives for the larger community. But while we are teaching them to “be all they can be,” there is no one to teach them to be who they are – and to be who they were meant to be. Our children learn through role models. And it seems that when they turn on TV, all they see are people who use aggressive language and threaten to make war. Our children need to turn on the TV and see a role model who is a peacemaker. I think we all do.
Sometimes war is necessary. This may be one of those times. But when calculating the cost of war, look past military strategy and economics. Remember that the children are watching.