Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from news.com.au.
This week Dr Zac Turner looks at whether children watching violence on TV and phones can affect their personalities.
QUESTION: Hi Dr Zac, my 12-year-old son loves to watch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – he even has a favourite fighter who he keeps up to date with on social media. My husband watches it with him and wants to keep him watching it because he thinks it’ll make him manly.
I’m worried this may lead him to be more aggressive as an adult. Is it healthy for people to engage with violent content? Can you recommend my son any other outlets which may be more beneficial to his growth? – Amanda, 56, Queensland
ANSWER: Hi Amanda, thanks for your question. From studies I’ve read, there is a connection between engaging with violent content, be it video games, movies and promotional fighting such as the UFC and an increased likelihood for aggression.
However, it sounds like watching the UFC has become a valuable bonding time between your husband and son. Rather than taking this away, there are some ways to turn it into a more positive experience.
I would put the UFC in the same arena as WWE. It has many attributes that teenage boys going through puberty (and dads alike) find appealing – bright lights, scantily clad women and backstories to all the fighters. It’s a highly dramatised sport with high stakes, and it has to be so to draw in the large audiences it does.
Studies undertaken at amateur UFC events showed many attendees were attracted by the drama of the sport, rather than the explicit violence. I suggest your son is the same, he is infatuated with the narrative and has picked a fighter as his ‘hero’, similar to what the Ancient Romans would have done at the Colosseum.
Seeing this violence on a screen triggers a type of ‘camera flash’ in our brains, where the high levels of arousal from viewing is paired with a release of hormones which stores memories. The more violent the content, the more we remember. It’s a similar response to when we eat, have sex or for people who take drugs.
There’s a clear cross-cultural distinction between men and women and how they display aggression. Studies have shown men are more likely to express their aggression directly, through physical or verbal action.
Women are more likely to express aggression indirectly, where they focus on damaging social status or hurting reputation through rumours.
If you look at Australia’s crime statistics, you will see men are over represented in acts of violent crime. Yet this does not mean your son will be destined to commit violent crime; you can teach him through positive experience how to control his aggression and deal with conflict.
If you are worried your son will become aggressive due to the UFC, I recommend turning this interest in a positive experience. Rather than him sitting on the couch watching the fights, enrol him in martial arts classes. Not only will he learn to respect the sport, and the fighting ability it gives him, it will give him a strong sense of fortitude for other barriers in life. It could even be a great sport that your husband takes up as well, to continue the bonding time they enjoy together.
Your son will learn through positive experience how to deal with conflict, and later on in life he will approach conflict in a practised and measured way.
Dr Zac Turner has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He has worked as a Registered Nurse, both in Australia and internationally and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist. | @drzacturner