Straight Talk Advice

Jan 15, 2013

Cost of virtual violence Part II

Dear Readers: Last week, “Curious Reader” asked if mass shootings are the price of society’s insatiable appetite for media violence. A furious defense ensued from the male panelists (see our column JAN 8), who pointed to mentally disturbed individuals as the cause of mass shootings, not their games, movies and music, which they held sacrosanct. I agreed with the first part — and promised to talk this week about the inconvenient truth that massive childhood doses of virtual violence aren’t innocent either — and that they are causing previously unforeseen neuro-cognitive maladaptions and breakdown. —Lauren

But first, some panelists less captivated by virtual violence:

Hannah 21, Sausalito, Calif. Ask me a question

Media violence isn’t the cause of mass shootings, but it is ridiculous to think it has no effect. Speaking as a kindergarten teacher, it is extremely important to protect children's lives from it. Children should be playing outside, getting dirty, building real connections, not shooting others in video games. Regarding the Newtown shooting, with input from the parent body, our school decided to shelter children from the news, which is part of the problem.

Katie 19, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

Using violence to tell a story is one thing. But when it’s gratuitous gore, I look away. Video games make movies look tame. I’ve played “Silent Hill” and the real-time effect makes you feel in the game. People with mental issues can be triggered and influenced. Small seeds, planted in the wrong environment, can grow ugly.

Lennon 26, Los Angeles Ask me a question

As a hunter, I know from “killing” animals in video games, versus killing actual birds, games and movies don’t come close to real experiences of violence and death. They’ve actually detached us from life more than ever before. Farming, hunting, loved ones dying in the parlor — these gave us real life-and-death experiences. Now we watch it on screens.

There is no one reason for mass shootings. But we humans ostracize anyone different: nerds, gays, the overweight, and especially the mentally unstable or emotionally awkward. With nobody to connect with, they fall through the cracks. Why such individuals didn’t take revenge through mass shootings in the past is uncertain, but doing so makes them a household name on par with John Wilkes Booth. It's absurd! People emulate what they see — yet the news saturates us with these killings.

Nicole 23, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

American youth are raised on nonstop media violence — and yes, it plays a role. The greatest problem is exposure too young, which affects development and ability to discern and self-manage.

Ryann 16, Tustin, Calif,. Ask me a question

As a woman, I dislike video games that glorify war and hate. But every day, my younger brothers are on the couch playing their games or listening to rap. I wish I could ban violent movies and games for children under 18. They would grow up happier, healthier, more mentally stable.

Dear Readers: They would indeed — Ryann is correct. And here’s why. Whenever we experience violence on a screen, our front brain informs us correctly, “This is not real.” Unfortunately, our older, “reptilian” brain, designed for survival reactions, believes it is real.

Every time a violent act occurs, the reptilian brain sends alarm messages that trigger release of the powerful hormone, cortisol, which instantly creates billions of new neural links in the brain to deal with the “danger”. When the “emergency” is over, all the neural links not involved in solving the danger are instantly dissolved by another hormone. This is how our incredible brain stays efficient and conditioned to its environment.

Or in this case, maladapted.

The average American spends five hours a day watching TV, absorbing 20-50 violent “bits” per hour. By age 18, that’s almost 33,000 hours — containing over a million violent “events”. What happens, any weight-lifter can tell you: the reptilian brain grows larger, the frontal brain smaller. Scientists are also seeing an alarming breakdown in inter-brain communication.

This means: reduced imagination, critical thinking and literacy, more black-and-white thinking, more kneejerk behavior, reduced awareness of environmental signals (desensitization), earlier puberty (from age 15 to 11; the body must reproduce quicker in a world of constant danger), less inter-brain cohesion (more stress, anxiety, anger), and much more. Joseph Chilton Pearce, Jerry Mander, Jane Healy, these are just some of researchers trying to get everyone’s attention above the din of the entertainment industry. I refer you to their work.

Fact: We pass the sins of our lifestyle genetically to our children. Often the first couple of generations display minimal outward symptoms. But if we don’t wake up and stop feeding our young this literally insane “mental diet” (sorry, even 5000 hours is insane), the mental dysfunction of the next generation will ruin us.

Editor's Note: Nothing gets readers more upset as when I disparage video games — or in today’s case, media violence in general. This is duly noted as a further sign of addiction, which, I’m sure calmed everyone down.

I’m a farmer by nature. I’m always struck by how if we really wanted to raise champions, we would never feed them what we feed them, let them be so sleep deprived, so lacking in fresh air and movement, nor would we (arguably the weirdest thing of all), let them hypnotize themselves in front of artificially glowing screens — where they absorb/engage in violence? Honestly, it’s insane.

Am I the village idiot, or did I just miss the Kool-Aid?

To be healthy, kids need to move, play, contribute, be outside, have real connections and eye contact with peers and nurturing leaders in a stress-free structure within which they can learn, stretch and grow.

Positive emotional experiences keep humans shifted into the creative, prefrontal lobes of the brain. Stressful experiences keep them controlled by the reptilian brain with its reflexes of anxiety, anger and hostility. The realm of the brain children spend the most time in has a profound effect on their intelligence and emotional stability — not to mention what they pass on to their own children.

The media industry spends fortunes debunking what I’ve shared today, but the science is real. And anybody paying attention can see that, already, learning challenges, mental illness and disorders are off the charts — especially among the young. Just wait for the next generation or two. It’s going to be a catastrophe if we don’t turn this thing around.

I’ll say it again, every parent controls the on-off switch in their home. No matter when you start, the results will be more positive than if you didn’t.

Final word: I know many incredible young men who play video games — since most of them do — and I know their well-meaning parents. I also know a few girls who like video games and violent movies. One wrote last week upset that I was leaving her out. To all of you, I love you. That’s why I do this work. —Lauren

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  1. By Reader, age , from Sonoma County, CA on 01/22/2013

    Please provide me with the references to the articles you refer to by Pearce, Mander, and Healy.  Thank you.

    Reply to this comment

  2. By Lauren Forcella, age , from Sebastopol, CA on 01/22/2013

    Thanks for asking.

    All three researchers have written several books.

    Probably the most pertinent are, Joseph Chilton Pearce’s “Evolution’s End”

    Jane Healy’s “Failure to Connect”:

    and Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”

    There are also many good interviews with Joseph Chilton Pearce on the internet, too. Here is one that relates particularly to virtual violence:

    I hope this is helpful.


    Reply to this comment

  3. By Debra Weistar, age, from Nevada City, CA on 01/27/2013

    Thank you for the courageous truth-telling as regards the destructive aspects of media violence. I’d like to add the following:

    In addition to the exponential increase in learning challenges, mental illness and disorders is the equally alarming increase in childhood incidences of diabetes, obesity, and asthma—all have been linked to a sedentary lifestyle as well as poor diet choices and environmental harm. The combination is killing our kids.

    On a positive note I’d like to point out that there are many, many outdoor programs, camps and schools that meet the real needs of children and adolescents you outline so well, including Rites of Passage programs for young men AND women. You are right—at one time most of the population engaged in hunting and farming, and for a time the arts, music, and physical activity were a part of every child’s education. Now we have to consciously create those learning opportunities for our children. The good news is that such programs exist and, as the director of one of them, I can attest that every child that is exposed to great Nature in developmentally appropriate ways and in the right doses, responds positively mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yes, I said every child.

    Add one more resource to your excellent list:
    Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

    This 2005 book is already a bit dated in the research, but well worth reading and still valuable. His latest book is The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder. I have not read this one yet, so cannot comment on it specifically.

    Thank you for the insights and spirited dialog!

    Debra Weistar
    Synergia Learning Ventures, Nevada City, CA




    Reply to this comment

  4. By Debra Weistar, age, from Nevada City, CA on 01/27/2013

    Found this after I submitted my comment:

    “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
                                                          —-  Richard Louv

    Reply to this comment

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