Why kids love what they love

With the release last month of a new study by Brigham Young University, St. Mary's University and the National Institute on Media and the Family linking TV and video game violence with aggression in kids, the battle heats up once more between the opponents of 'media violence' and the producers of 'action entertainment.' And as usual, no matter who wins, it's the kids who lose.
September 1, 2002

With the release last month of a new study by Brigham Young University, St. Mary’s University and the National Institute on Media and the Family linking TV and video game violence with aggression in kids, the battle heats up once more between the opponents of ‘media violence’ and the producers of ‘action entertainment.’ And as usual, no matter who wins, it’s the kids who lose.

Opponents citing statistical correlations between aggression and entertainment versus producers huffing that people aren’t influenced at all by make-believe–it’s the same argument that culminated in the tightened kids TV restrictions of the 1970s. It’s the same argument that culminated in the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934. Both cases resulted in creators being maddened by a bramble of arbitrary restrictions, critics still unhappy with what they saw, audiences losing something they loved, and no change in crime rates or any other measure of the quality of life.

Usually there’s no such culmination, only the argument spinning endlessly like a millstone. A little of the passion goes out of the creation of kids TV, replaced by anxiety and second-guessing. Responsible entertainers back away from aggression, leaving kids to satisfy one of their most powerful cravings with the cheesy products of schlockmeisters–while they get the message from adults that their love of fight-fantasies is wrong and threatening. Just what children don’t need as they try to navigate their way through an anxious world.

It’s time for a new dialogue. A dialogue that starts with the question, ‘Why do kids love what they love?’

After the terrorist attacks of last September, thousands of concerned adults called for military toys and violent programs to be pulled from the shelves and the airwaves. At the same time, sales and rentals of such toys and entertainment surged. Nothing could better illustrate the gap between adults’ and children’s views of violence. When we adults confront something terrible, we try not to ‘trivialize’ or ‘exploit’ it. We don’t want to be reminded of it at all unless we explore it in full seriousness.

But children, as all the research shows, need to ‘play through it.’ They need to take control of their feelings by working them into a game or story that confronts the worst, but resolves happily. If we see them having fun with combat, we fear they’re learning to tolerate it. But most of the time, they’re learning how to put it down and move on.

The research on violent entertainment has limited the old dialogue by clinging to a ’cause and effect’ model that fails to consider the complexity of stories and our individual, emotional, interpretative relationships with them. We try to isolate the ‘effect’ of video violence on the imagination as if we were studying the effect of mercury or nicotine on the functioning of a cell. Would we dream of applying such a reductionist medical approach to understanding the power of fairy tales, love songs or French Impressionism?

The research has also restricted the conversation by so relentlessly pursuing the negative. Nearly every study of video aggression is based on the question, ‘What’s the harm here?’ That’s like running hundreds of studies of milk and only asking if it sometimes causes digestive troubles and allergic reactions, without ever asking if it also contains calcium and protein.

If we ask of anything powerful, ‘Can this be harmful sometimes?’ we’ll come up with some sort of ‘Yes.’ Can we correlate real-world aggression with religion, patriotism, sports rivalries and passionate love? Of course. But we also ask what’s important about them, and why people value them, even with their volatile power.

The dialogue has been limited just as severely, however, by those who rebut the research with nitpicking, legalistic assertions that the evidence doesn’t prove any connection between kids entertainment and their emotional and social development. A child who loves Wolverine or Yu-Gi-Oh! or any other action hero will act out his fights, draw pictures of him, tell stories about him, collect all his merchandise, and want to be him for Halloween. Obviously, this combative character holds a powerful place in his emotional life and will be a part of him in every aspect of his development.

We begin to understand why so many kids crave these fantasies, and how they’re incorporating them into real life, when we step outside the mass-media battleground and look at the research on more general play patterns and storytelling–fields that haven’t been so dominated by politics and profits.

One function of play and stories is, indeed, to help kids rehearse for what they will be in later life. But there are other functions that are more frequently employed and often more important. Make-believe enables kids to explore being exactly what they know they will never be in reality. And in doing so, it makes it easier for them to accept not being what they pretend to be–not being powerful, destructive, confrontational and combatants in a world of cartoony good and evil.

Kids need to feel more powerful. They need vacations from the self-constraint and impulse control that the world demands of them constantly. They need to simplify our anxiety-provoking reality into winnable battles of absolute heroes and villains. They need to work through their concerns about the violence that they know exists in the real world. They need to be able to explore their most unrealistic fantasies so they can learn more about the difference between fantasy and reality. And they need to feel safe and supported in those trips into fantasyland so that they can take what’s helpful from it and return to reality without mingling their aggressive fantasies with real fear and real confrontation.

A polarized, limited dialogue leads us only to bad compromises. It leads us to focus on externalities and petty details, while we miss the heart of the story–the emotional needs that make action and combat so compelling to kids.

If we try to understand those needs, we can shatter one of the needless barriers between ‘quality’ and ‘commercial’ TV. We can bring action entertainment into the realm of responsible, beneficial entertainment. We can bring all of our creative and intellectual resources together to help children become more whole.

Gerard Jones is the author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books) and the founder of Media Power for Children.

Talk Back–We would love to hear what you think about the issues and ideas presented in this opinion column. If you’d like to respond, please e-mail your comments to KidScreen Editor Jocelyn Longworth (

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