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Children are natural mimics. Through observing and then imitating, children learn the fundamentals of communication. As that first smile emerges, it becomes the foundation for the development of reciprocal relationships in which modeling becomes the building block for future complex communication.

Research has long acknowledged that children from violent homes often become violent themselves. But never before has violence been as accessible as it is today in the form of iPad games, iTouch, and television. The question facing us is, “Do children imitate on-screen behavior”? And the answer is a resounding, Yes. Before the age of 7, young children struggle to determine what is real and what is not. Violence in video games can become another imitative fantasy.

In a study published last week in the “Journal of Pediatrics”, researchers report the results of a study designed to limit the exposure of preschool children to violent video games and TV shows. In the place of violence, educational and thoughtful, albeit entertaining (and why not?) videos encouraged empathy, sharing, and problem solving. The result was that when children watched videos with reduced aggression, they became less aggressive themselves. 

The bottom line is that we have the potential as a society to reduce violence. The take home message is not to relinquish TVs, iPads, and all the electronic stuff that makes our lives easier as parents. Rather, it’s about encouraging better behavior by directing what our children watch and encouraging peaceful television. And perhaps more importantly, it’s not only about changing your child’s media diet, but it is about engaging with your child, and talking about conflict rather than acting aggressively. 

So it falls to us that our own behavior becomes a paradigm for children to model. By providing examples of cooperative and empathic behavior rather than rage and physical violence, children will be able to distinguish between the fantasy of television and what happens in daily life.