In a recent study, researchers asked children ages 8 – 12 years old to watch 20-minute clips of PG-rated movies that either included or did not include gun violence. The objective of the study was to test whether children exposed to gun violence in movie clips would 1) handle a real gun longer and 2) pull the trigger more times than children not exposed to the same clip edited to not contain gun violence.
The children were then placed into a university laboratory containing toys, games and a real, 0.38 caliber gun which was disabled and modified to have a sensor counting trigger pulls with the door closed. A research assistant sat in an exterior greeting room if the children had questions. The study found that children who watched the clip containing guns were more likely to use the guns themselves than the children who watched the clip that did not contain guns (median trigger pulls were 2.8 compared to 0.01 and median number of seconds holding the gun were 53.1 compared to 11.1, respectively). Roughly 27% of children informed the assistant about the gun or handed it over and a small number aimed the gun at other children.
Although this study was approved by the scientists’ institutional review board, many ethicists believe the potential harm of the study was “not worth it,” including Dr. Celia Fisher, director of Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education. “In any kinds of ethics evaluation, we have to balance the risk against the benefit. I think the study’s results are not of great scientific importance because we already know what the result is going to be. We have decades of scientific research showing that kids will imitate aggressive behavior they view on the TV screen,” Fisher told Mic.
In regard to the children’s age (median of 9.9 years old, Fisher explained, “it’s really difficult to know over the child’s next year the extent to which they would be influenced by this experiment. As good as the debriefing was, it doesn’t necessarily outweigh the experience of that child having an adult implicitly condone them picking up a gun.”
“[The test subjects] left the study with insight into themselves that they otherwise might not have had — insight which might not even be true, but rather enforced by the conditions of the study,” Fisher said. “Telling a child they did something retrospectively that could’ve been harmful is inflicted insight that could make the child feel ashamed. It could affect their self-esteem.”
Read the full Mic article here: “Scientists gave kids real guns for an experiment. Now ethicists are weighing in.” and read the study here: “Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children’s Interest in Real Guns.”
Dr. Fisher is the Mary Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics at Fordham University, a professor of Psychology and the director of Fordham University HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute. In addition to chairing the 2002 revision of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code, Fisher’s Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists is now in its fourth edition from Sage Publications. Please visit her webpage for more information about her work, as well as the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Research page.