Kids who see guns in movies are more likely to pull the trigger in real life

Child’s play.
Child’s play.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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Violence in movies is on the rise. As much as we’d like to believe that it doesn’t matter much, when it comes to our kids, it does.

New research published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that kids who watched a short movie with guns were more likely to pull the trigger on a real (unloaded) gun following the film compared to kids who watched a movie without guns.

The researchers, from Ohio State University and Wittenberg University, recruited 104 kids aged eight to 12 and randomly assigned them into pairs to watch a 20-minute PG film clip. Half the kids saw a clip with guns and violence, and half did not.

The kids were then allowed to play in a room full of toys which included Legos, Nerf guns, games like checkers, and a real 0.38-caliber handgun. The gun had been disabled so it could not shoot, and a sensor was installed to calculate the number of times the kids pulled the trigger. The gun was in a drawer, so the children had to find it. They had 20 minutes to play and were recorded.

Kids who saw the movie with guns and then found the gun while playing held it for longer (a median of 53.1 seconds for kids who saw the guns, versus 11.1 seconds for those who didn’t.) Kids who saw guns in the movie were also far more likely to pull the trigger than those who hadn’t seen the movie with guns. (The median number of time kids who saw the movie with guns pulled the trigger was 2.8, compared to 0.01 for those who did not.)

Most of the kids (82.7%) found the gun. About a quarter (27%) handed it over to the research assistant or told the assistant about it. In 42.3% of the pairs, one or or both participants handled the gun.

Boys pulled the trigger more than girls (though there were many fewer girls in the gun-movie condition), but gender did not affect how long kids played with guns. Kids with more positive attitudes toward guns pulled the trigger more, but did not necessarily spend more time with the gun.

“The results from this experiment suggest that exposure to gun violence in movies increases interest in guns in the real world,” the authors wrote. They noted that the movies were PG rated, and not R, meaning the effects “might be greater with newer films containing more graphic gun violence.”

While it feels intuitive that watching a movie with gun violence would desensitize kids to the guns themselves, or the effect they have when used, the study was unique in trying to test that, using various controls including sex, age, trait aggressiveness, exposure to violent media, interest in guns, and number of guns at home.

Just say no

Part of the challenge in limiting kids’ exposure to gun violence is peer pressure. Parents find it hard to say no to a film or a game when everyone seems to be playing it or seeing it. An analysis of top-selling films found that the prevalence of guns in movies rated PG-13 has more than doubled since 1985. By 2005, what had once been considered R-rated material had become worthy of a G-rating.

It’s possible we too are becoming desensitized. And real-life exposure to guns and gun violence doesn’t help. Gun violence is the third leading cause of death among American children. According to Pediatrics, 19 children are shot every day in the US.

Perhaps the most alarming part of the study was observing the difference in behavior between kids who were exposed to movies with guns and those who weren’t. Two trained research assistants watched and transcribed videos of each play session from four random pairs, some of whom had watched the movie with guns, and others who hadn’t. The researchers, who didn’t know ahead of time which children had watched the violent media, recorded the type of play, categorizing it as aggressive, gentle, independent, together, or taking turns, and the way the kids communicated, i.e. by swearing, or complimenting.

Among the four randomly selected pairs who watched the gun-free film, the kids were less interested in playing with the gun. For example, one pair didn’t find it, while one pair found it but ignored it, playing checkers and Legos instead. Of the other two pairs, both alerted the research assistant about the gun and opted for Nerf guns for most of their play, firing at the wall mostly. Sometimes they shot at each other, though not in the head, and they allowed each other to reload their guns. Fairness, it would seem, mattered.

The kids who watched the gun-movie showed very different behavior. Though one pair one found the gun and didn’t touch it (asking for permission to play with the Nerf guns), the others three pairs played pretty aggressively. One pair handed the gun over, but later expressed regret at having done so. They spent the session pretending their Nerf guns were M14s (semi-automatic rifles) and talking about killing zombies and “blowing heads off.”

One child in the third pair held the gun for 18 minutes of the 20-minute play period and pulled the trigger 26 times, aiming it at the temple of his partner’s head. And in the final pair, one boy pulled the trigger 35 times, pointed the real gun out the window at people in the street, threatened to hit his friend with the gun, and tried to steal toys and games from the play room. Language included “I told you don’t mess with me b—!” and “Are you dumb as f—?!”)

Of course, the researchers couldn’t isolate the effect of the short movie on the kids’ behavior. Maybe the kids in the gun movie group were generally a more violent lot. But the pattern holds in other trouble areas for kids. Previous research has shown that kids exposed to movie characters who smoke are more likely to smoke. The same is true of movies where characters drink alcohol, and now guns. This research suggests violent media merits our attention. Exhausting as it may be for parents, being overbearing would seem to pay off.