Health & Fitness

Childhood exposure to guns creating an epidemic of violence

Alan M. Delamater, Ph.D., is director of clinical psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth, the University of Miami Health System.
Alan M. Delamater, Ph.D., is director of clinical psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth, the University of Miami Health System. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

We are all saddened by and tired of gun violence affecting children. Each day, eight children in the U.S. die by firearms — either by homicide, suicide or accident — amounting to about 3,000 children killed each year. Getting killed by guns is the second-leading cause of death in children and adolescents in the U.S., followed by motor vehicle accidents. As parents, how can we change this alarming trend?

Exposure to guns and violence is not good for optimal child development, nor is it good for public health. Research shows that repeated and excessive exposure to aggression and gun violence through movies, TV and video games increases the probability of children behaving aggressively toward others later.

Children witness acts of gun violence, including murders, thousands of times during their development, possibly making them numb or desensitized to killing. For example, in popular video games children can act virtually as perpetrators of gun violence. They may come to accept violence as a way to resolve conflict, imitating what they see in media and identifying with violent characters.

Kids also may become traumatized by witnessing gun violence in their communities, an all-too-common experience in South Florida where young children are often caught in the crossfire of adolescents solving petty disputes with assault rifles.

When children have access to real guns, the results are often tragic. The combination of normal childhood characteristics, such as curiosity, high activity levels, impulsiveness, playfulness and immaturity, when mixed with guns, significantly increases the risk of injury and death.

From a public health perspective, children should be restricted from guns unless they are in highly supervised settings with adults, such as a target practice at summer camp or part of a competitive team. Increased efforts should be made to limit kids’ access to guns. High-powered semi-automatic guns should not be allowed for use by children under any circumstance.

In December 2014, a new attraction opened outside Orlando, offering children as young as 13, with parental permission, the opportunity to handle machine guns and become comfortable with and skilled at using them. Both target practice and virtual reality simulators provide real-life scenarios like those used to train military or special police tactical squads.

The use of virtual reality simulators is especially troubling, as kids experience realistic and lifelike scenarios in which they are rewarded for making kills. While this is just a game, children get used to taking out the bad guys and feeling powerful, fueling their own fantasies of power and control. Learning through such virtual conditions can be very powerful, but as far as a child’s nervous system is concerned, it’s basically the same as true reality. Such simulators were developed for training soldiers and police, not kids whose brains are not mature enough to distinguish fake from real.

Parents should be asking how to optimize their child’s development. Do you want to help them be successful soldiers, effective killers? Or do you want to help them gain academic skills, become socialized, learn to follow rules, have fun and make and keep friends?

A 13-year-old is just beginning to understand who they are. They are making sense of biological changes as they mature, learning to function more autonomously from their parents, identifying with their peer group, making meaningful relationships and developing special skills and abilities through sports, music, dance, reading and other activities.

Children are also slowly developing self-regulatory skills. Good executive functioning is an important predictor of success, but for many teens, self-regulation develops late because the brains of adolescents continue to mature into early adulthood. If a child has not matured to a point where good judgment and inhibitory ability are a part of their skill set, the availability of guns could lead to tragic consequences, because they will not have the ability to curb a negative, and possibly violent, reaction.

To get good at anything requires practice. Rather than teach violence as a means to solve problems, parents should focus their children on cultivating restraint, good judgment, kindness, generosity and respect toward others. Limiting exposure to virtual displays of gun violence through TV, movies and video games is a good policy for effective parenting. Providing children access to combat simulators and actual shooting of machine guns is not. And guns at home is a recipe for disaster. Instead, surround your child with positive influences that will enhance their development.

The more we teach our children that creative problem-solving and kindness, rather than violence, is the answer, the better our society will become as a whole.

Alan M. Delamater, Ph.D., is director of clinical psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.

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