Q: I have two teenage sons and they both – particularly the elder one – enjoy watching violent films and playing video games that seem to have a lot of violent content. Recently I’ve noticed that my elder one appears to idolise some of the characters who are downright ruthless and brash. What concerns me more is that he thinks they are cool.
A: The amount of violence portrayed in mainstream movies has been growing steadily over the past 50 years. Add to this, the recent ‘true-life’ gaming phenomenon where characters are shown in ever more life-like ways, there’s a real danger that watching and absorbing violent imagery becomes routine. And when something becomes routine, it then becomes ‘normal’ and this is a disturbing and dangerous trend that parents should be aware of.
You say you are concerned by the portrayal of the ruthless characters that your son admires so much. Rightly so, as the relationships which are being developed between character and viewer (your son in this case) have shifted from a time when a movie character engaging in violence was seen as a fully warranted part of the story, a morally justified act – good overcoming bad!
Things have changed significantly now. The violence we are shown is often woven into a targeted and complex narrative, where the viewer doesn’t automatically need to discriminate between justified and unjustified violence any longer. It’s designed for modern youth who are attracted to the content but who are not sensitive to its moral implications.
Teenage boys can be racked with emotional and physical turmoil. There’s an explosion of hormones going on. Often, as a consequence they start looking to the various violent protagonists in TV shows, movies and games. Therefore, you need to provide clarity as to what you deem acceptable or otherwise. A note of caution; before you try and control what they’re watching, it’s important to make sure you maintain a healthy balance between giving them the freedom to explore, while at the same time, ensuring that they are safe online and are protected from potentially damaging influences. You could even explore setting up filters or controls on devices, so that content that falls under the "violence" genre won’t be shown as suggestions for your teens.
Naturally, once they reach an age and a maturity level where they can distinguish between what’s actually appropriate for them to watch and what to avoid, you can ease the restrictions.
You need to remain vigilant to the risk that the virtual action he is seeing on screen isn’t being translated into his real-life behaviour. This could be seen in him attempting to mimic violent acts at home using sibling or friends as willing (or otherwise!) extras.
It is important to also stay alert to the sort of content they are consuming as the fascination to watch increasingly violent movies may increase if left unchecked, we need to avoid this reaching a point where it may be difficult to manage their viewing habits effectively.
As always, it is vital that you talk to them openly about the negative consequences of violence. Speak in a calm yet controlled manner. Mention the growing statistics and negative trends in teens exposed to violent imagery, maybe suggest watching other genres that portray the heroes in more positive and enlightened roles.
If you feel that their behaviour is not changing and their viewing habits do not develop and mature, you may consider consulting a professional who will be able to guide you with tailored advice on how to move forward with your own family circumstances.
Finally, there’s an additional concern: youngsters exposed to violent scenes may go on to develop a view that the world is an overly hazardous place filled with people with ill intentions – this would be a sad outcome given the global community really needs to pull together now more than ever.
Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based lifecoach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and author of The Mind Diet and Active Positive Parenting (russellhemmings.co.uk).