Parents are understandably and quite correctly concerned about what media their children consume; even though admittedly the television can provide a welcome and much-needed respite for parents, what kind of screen time is good for children and what kind is detrimental? A large and growing body of research has been devoted to exploring these questions, with a special interest in the effects of viewing violence on television or online.
Violent media impairs learning.
There is significant research showing that adults’ learning of foreign languages being substantially lowered, for example, as well as memory of advertisements — and also impairs school performance. Researchers wanted to know if being gifted made a difference to a student’s vulnerability to the effects of violent media — in other words, did it have a protective effect, no effect, or did it increase these effects?
Gifted Child Quarterly published a study at the end of 2016 which addressed this question, and it revealed quite dramatic findings. Researchers evaluated 154 10-year-old children — half gifted, half nongifted — after showing them a 12-minute cartoon video that was either considered “nonviolent” (an episode of “Arthur”) or “violent” (an episode of “Bakugan”). The students were given a verbal test before the videos and again afterwards to see if there was a difference in student performance due to the media they watched.
First, student reactions and opinions about the videos differed greatly: gifted children liked the nonviolent “Arthur” video a little more than the nongifted children did (approx. +10%). Additionally, the gifted children rated the “Bakugan” violent video as almost 25% more violent than the nongifted children did, and they also said they disliked it over 54% more than their nongifted peers did. It seems that, even before we even address any cognitive impact, gifted children have a more “outsized” reaction to violence in video material than their nongifted peers.
The results regarding cognitive effects of the videos were arresting, however. As expected, the gifted students outperformed their nongifted peers on a verbal task before watching the video — in this case, their scores were 18% higher than the nongifted students on the initial task. Then the children watched the video, and were retested on a similar verbal task immediately thereafter. While all the children’s verbal productivity was substantially lower after the violent video than it was following the nonviolent one, the effect on the gifted children was far more substantial. After watching the violent video, the gifted students’ advantage disappeared — there was even a small negative effect because their scores were now 13% lower than those of the nongifted students, a swing of -31 percentage points…just from a 12-minute video.
They didn’t really look “gifted” anymore.
The violent cartoon had changed their verbal task performance to the degree that it essentially “erased” expression of their verbal giftedness, though only temporarily. Importantly, too, the nongifted children’s performance differed significantly — those who watched the violent video had a significantly worse performance than those who watched the nonviolent one (-44% difference).
The reasons stem from the very same neurological wiring that allowed our species to evolve in the first place — our brains are wired to pay attention to violence. While that may sound strange, it has a very practical application: your “caveman” instinct is to notice violence and pay attention to it as a form of self-defense. As a result of this highly adaptive and useful adaptation, we pay more attention to violence than we might like, an impulse which is actually not truly under our control.
The connection to gifted children is that they are naturally more sensitive to input of all kinds — sensory, intellectual, etc. — and have a lower “arousal threshold,” meaning that their brains notice smaller details that may escape the notice of nongifted peers. Therefore, gifted children’s brains are triggered to pay attention to violence in media earlier and longer than nongifted children’s brains are: their neurological response is “louder” than in nongifted children. Additionally, their heightened emotional sensitivity results in their having an extended reaction to the media even after it is over. All of these small neurological differences add up to their brains using a lot more of their attention and working memory to monitor the violence onscreen and to manage their emotional response to it — working memory that would usually be used for other tasks. As a result, the violent video had a much longer-lasting and more pronounced effect on them than on the nongifted children.
What does this mean for you and your child?
Well, it’s already difficult for most people to truly adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics’s (AAP’s) original guidelines regarding media. While the AAP once recommended that children 2 and under spend NO time in front of screens each day and children 3 and older be limited to 2 hours, they released a more nuanced set of recommendations in 2015 to reflect the degree to which our culture is saturated in screens of all kinds. Now, AAP offers more general advice — that parents be actively involved in their children’s media choices and consumption of media and work with them to set boundaries and expectations about the amount of time they spend with screens. While these may seem like vague guidelines, a discussion about media with your children is a great opportunity to convey your family’s values and to share metacognitive insights about what watching videos does to your brain.
Jill Williford Wurman is the Director of Research at The Grayson School. This is an excerpt from a post originally published in the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE) Blog titled Wired From Birth: Gifted Children and Technology. You can reach Jill with any comments or questions via email at Research@TheGraysonSchool.org.