Should We Still Be Buying Our Kids Toy Guns?

What used to be considered harmless fun now has seriously negative implications for many parents. With the media spotlight focused on school-shootings and the number of children killed by gunshot, some parents are wondering if toy guns should be entirely off-limits.

According to an article published in Newsweek, shootings are now the third-leading cause of death for American children, behind illnesses and unintentional injuries (drownings or car crashes). A study in the journal Pediatrics show that an average of 5,790 children in the U.S. receive emergency room treatment for gun-related injuries yearly.

Author and mom Kimberly King says letting her boys play with toy guns has not been a clear-cut choice. “I felt ok with the water guns and Nerf guns,” said Kimberly. “My kids loved the movie Toy Story. Most gunplay was a result of things they saw in that movie. There were plenty of times I heard my son say ‘reach for the sky, partner!’ The boys used water guns for target shooting and goofing around.

“The problem today is that most kids are active on video games. Many young kids are playing a game called Fortnite that’s really popular. It’s with video games like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor where, in my opinion, the gun thing gets dicey and dangerous. They’re so graphic and so real. The lines are blurred here for kids. Killing a virtual character becomes a sport. It becomes something kids do with their friends in groups. The reality of death is taken out. This is truly disturbing to me.”

It’s a tough choice for many parents. So to get an expert’s opinion, we sat down with licensed child and adolescent child psychologist Katherine Nguyen Williams, Ph.D., to get her take on this hot-button topic:

Have kids always been drawn to playing with toy guns, or is it relatively new?

Children have been pretend playing with guns for centuries. If there are no toy guns around, children have been observed to use their fingers to pretend play with guns. The research data on the association between pretend playing with guns and real-life aggression are mixed. A handful of earlier studies showed children who were exposed to toy guns exhibited more aggression afterward; however, these studies were rife with research methodology problems such as small sample sizes and vague definitions of aggression. So the results are inconclusive.

Then there are the limited studies that show that playful aggression in children can actually be useful; that aggression in childhood play potentially serve as sociodramatic play in normal child development, and can help children learn how to cope with emotions and control aggressive impulses.

What about violent and graphic video games – is there a correlation between single-shooter games and real-world violence?

Additional studies on role-playing violent video gaming are also mixed. While a recent meta-analysis in 2010 found a correlation between time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behavior later in life, the overall prevalence of violent crime have generally decreased during the same number of years when violent role-play video gaming have increased sharply. Hence, studies on pretend playing with guns and later aggression are mixed; however, these studies have been done on typically-developing children.

What we really need is well-done research on the effects of aggressive gun play with children who have known risk factors like mental illness or violence in the home.

While many children engage in pretend play with guns (toy guns, video games, or simply with their fingers) and do not grow up to have problems engaging in real life violent crime, the real question is: Can it cause some children to engage in subsequent real-life violence? In children who already have impulse control problems, it may be difficult for them to inhibit their aggressive behaviors during and after aggressive play with toy guns.

What about children who grow up with real guns in their households?

Access to real guns is highly problematic. Over the recent decade, toy guns have become much more realistic-looking. Children (and even some adults) have a difficult time differentiating between toy and real guns. On top of that, recent studies show that teaching children about gun safety/awareness doesn’t necessarily mean that they refrain from playing with real guns when they’re found in the home. Maybe the teaching methods need to be reevaluated; maybe they need to be more frequent and consistent.

Furthermore, for individuals who have impulse control problems, having easy access to guns is a strong risk factor for real life violence. One out of three homes with children have guns. Children should not have unsupervised access to guns. If there is a gun in the household, it must be locked up safely out of the reach of children. Many parents believe that they can successfully hide their guns from children in their house without locking them up; however, more than 75 percent of first and second graders know where their parents keep their firearms and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons, contradicting their parents’ own reports.

And in homes that have guns for self-defense, the vast majority of accidental firearm deaths among children are related to child access to firearms — either self-inflicted or at the hands of another child.

What if your child is begging for a water-pistol, or the latest violent video game?

So, the million-dollar question comes back to whether parents should limit their child's exposure to toy guns and video-gaming with guns. For typically-developing children, there is no need to eliminate their pretend play with toy guns. But parents can and should use that play to have conversations with their children about prosocial ways to address real-life problems that come up for them, e.g., when a bigger kid (aka "bad guy") on the playground pushes them, what solutions should they try?

Parents should also be aware of the kind of toy gun play their child is engaging in. Repetitive play such as simply shooting at a stuffed animal over and over again is not constructive play. On the other hand, creative role-playing of a train robbery can be helpful play with regard to imagination, cooperative play, and teaching peer conflict resolution.

Finally, parents often know their children best. If their child has impulsivity or other known risk factors for violence or mental illness (e.g., higher suicide risk for depressed children with impulsivity and access to guns), parents should be more mindful and attentive to their child's exposure to aggressive play and media violence.

What’s your toy gun and video game policy for your children? Tell us!

Tags : safety   development   play   

No Comments.