Written by Abby Martinez
“Have you seen the latest video game about shooting heroin? It’s huge! Every YouTuber is talking about it,” Beatriz Martinez-Peñalver, founder and creator of Triumph Steps, an emotional literacy curriculum, began telling her daughter and some of her14-year-old friends. “They all looked at me in terror. When I asked them why they were so concerned with the game, one said that is was very inappropriate. When I asked about the difference between that and a game where they were killing people, they basically said they have seen the games of killing people all their lives, just as children play with guns since they’re very young. This is exactly the meaning of desensitization.”
As per Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a rapidly changing world,“What’s troubling is that kids on a typical media diet are exposed to a lot – estimates are in the tens of thousands – of graphically violent images and ideas through movies, games, and even advertisements. As children grow up, their brains and bodies crave stimulation, which violent media certainly provides. The combination made kids, especially those with other risk factors, such as difficult home environments or emotional challenges, particularly vulnerable to the desensitizing effects of media violence.”
The video games industry was projected last year to reach 108.9 billion-dollar earnings with an estimated growth to 128.5 billion by 2020, according to the market analyst firm, Newzoo. That is 2.2 billion gamers worldwide actively engaged in video games. According to the American Psychological Council in 2015, 85% of video games on the market contained some form of violence. “Numerous studies have shown that an insidious and potent effect of media violence is to desensitize all of us to real-life violence.” Pediatricians are now recommended to ask their patients with sleep disorders, anxiety, or depression about their media viewing habits as part of the child’s home environment that may influence these symptoms.
A meta-analysis of 136 studies, Anderson et al. (2010), concluded that exposure to violent video games contributes to decreased empathy and pro-social behavior, consistent with greater emotional desensitization. This is exactly what Martinez-Peñalver was trying to convey to her daughter’s circle of friends when talking about the fakedrug-use video game and how it correlates to other media with inappropriate content that is now deemed acceptable. Through her curriculum she provides an understanding of how one’s actions has a direct correlation to one’s emotional state and ability to perform at one’s ultimate best. She and other experts in her field believe that there is a responsible way of presenting violence to children as it has a direct effect on the world around them and themselves. She explains the boomerang effect in her curriculum: what is thrown out to society comes right back whether good or bad. Several studies have found that the content of video games in which children are engaged in today is mostly of a negative nature, with many times negative repercussions.
Triumph Steps is now part of several schools throughout Miami-Dade County providing students with the tools to manage their thoughts in a healthy way, but a real a standard for emotional literacy education in American schools is still missing. The lack of standard to teach a balance and healthy approach to solving today’s challenges to children “results in increased acceptance of violence as an appropriate means of solving problems and achieving one’s goals.” Common Sense Media also states, “One study of nearly 32,000 teenagers in 8 different countries, for example, revealed that heavy television-viewing was associated with bullying,” adding that, “media violence is often characterized in the public domain as a values issue rather than what it truly is: a public health issue and an environmental issue.”
Martinez-Penalver states that we as parents are also desensitized and we do not see anything wrong with our children spending hours killing avatars. We don’t stop our children playing these violent games because we do not think they will end up committing crimes, and it is true, most of them won’t. However, we do know that it affects other more vulnerable children and the actions of those children affect society. We should start this conversation with our children to discourage the use of these games, after all, their choices and decisions can shape our society.
Beatriz Martinez-Peñalver is a psychotherapist recognized by the Children’s Trust as a nominee of the 2018 Champion for Children award in Miami-Dade County. Her program has been approved by MDCPS and is present in several schools throughout the county. For more information about emotional literacy or Beatriz Martinez-Peñalver, visit triumphsteps.com. For more guidelines for media exposure, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics at aap.org.