Kids Who See Hollywood Gunplay More Likely to Use Guns

movie, action sequence
(Image credit: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock)

Children who watch movies that include gun violence may be more likely to use guns themselves, a new study finds.

In the study, kids who watched a movie with gun violence later played with a gun for longer and pulled the trigger more times than kids who watched a movie without gun violence, according to the study, published today (Sept. 25) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The study used a real, but unloaded gun, and the children's parents gave consent.

The study is unlike any previous research conducted on the subject, said senior study author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University. But the findings were not surprising, he said. [9 Weird Ways Kids Can Get Hurt]

"Kids think movie characters are cool, and kids want to imitate movie characters," Bushman told Live Science. Indeed, previous research showed that kids who see movie characters smoking cigarettes are more likely to smoke themselves, and kids who see movie characters drinking alcohol are more likely to drink themselves, Bushman said. "It would be more surprising if [kids] imitated movie characters who smoked and drank but didn't imitate movie characters who did other things," he said.

Still, the study is likely to drum up controversy; indeed, it touches two "third rails" of academic medicine: media violence and guns, two editors of JAMA Pediatrics wrote in an editorial published alongside the study.

"We are aware that critics will seek flaws in the science and take issue with the conclusions," Dr. Dimitri Christakis, associate editor of the journal, and Dr. Frederick Rivara, editor of the journal, wrote in the editorial. However, they stressed the rigor of the science and data analysis.

Movie and play time

The study involved 52 pairs of children ages 8 to 12. The pairs were randomly assigned to watch a 20-minute version of a PG-rated movie either containing gun violence or not containing gun violence. Both movies contained action sequences. Following the movie, the pairs of children were taken to a separate room that had a cabinet filled with toys and games, including Legos, Nerf guns and checkers.

The cabinet also contained a real handgun. The gun was unloaded and modified so that it could not fire, but it was wired to count how many times the trigger was pulled. (The children's parents were informed that the experiment would involve this gun, and they gave their consent.) The gun was hidden, but the children in the study could find it if they looked, Bushman said.

The researchers told the kids that they could play with anything in the room for 20 minutes, and then left the pairs of children unattended. A researcher sat just outside the room, in case the kids had any questions. In addition, parents and other researchers watched the kids in the playroom on live video. [Top 5 Benefits of Play]

In 43 of the 52 pairs of kids in the study, one or both of the children found the gun in the playroom; of these, 22 of the pairs handled the gun, and 14 either gave the gun to the research assistant sitting outside or told the research assistant that they had found a gun.

On average, pairs of children who watched the movies with gun violence pulled the gun's trigger more than those who watched the movies without gun violence: The median number of trigger pulls for pairs who saw the movie with guns was three, compared with zero for pairs who watched the movie without guns. In addition, those who watched the movie with guns held the gun for a median of 53 seconds, compared with 11 seconds for the kids who watched the movie without guns.

Boys tended to pull the trigger more times than girls did, the researchers found. However, there were no differences between the sexes in how long the children held the gun.

The lab vs. the real world

The researchers noted that the study had several limitations. For example, only one real gun was used in the study, but two Nerf guns were available. This may have inadvertently encouraged the kids to play with the Nerf guns instead, the researchers wrote.

In addition, conducting future research in a more natural setting, such as a real home, would make the findings more generalizable, the study said.

But Bushman noted that "lots of other study findings on media violence apply outside of the lab, so it's hard to imagine that it would not apply outside [the lab] for this study but would for every other type of study."

"Skeptics will note that the non-real-world nature of the study limits its implications," Christakis and Rivara wrote in the editorial. But they also argued that the findings must be put in context.

"The children were not in their homes, but might the experimental situation be akin to being at a friend's home, a not-uncommon place where fatal unintentional shootings of children occur?" the editorial authors wrote. "If anything, the nature of the experiment — being in an unfamiliar setting — might induce them to report the gun (it wasn't theirs after all) or to feel less comfortable with it." [5 Milestones in Gun Control History]

Advice for parents

Bushman advised parents to be careful about what their children see in the media.

"Acts of gun violence in PG-13 movies have more than tripled since 1985," he said. In the study, the movies selected were rated PG, so it's possible that watching more-graphic representations of gun violence could have a greater effect on kids' likelihood to use a gun, he said.

Movies that contain drinking and smoking contain warnings, Bushman said, so why not have a warning for movie characters who use guns?

In addition, Bushman stressed the importance of locking up guns. "Sixty percent of gun owners don't" lock up their guns, and children may discover the weapons because of that, he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.