Gifted kids 'more affected by violence'

In the study, all children underperformed after watching a violent cartoon, but the gifted children showed a greater performance drop. Scholars have argued that it is a myth that gifted pupils do not face problems and challenges, and the study adds t
In the study, all children underperformed after watching a violent cartoon, but the gifted children showed a greater performance drop. Scholars have argued that it is a myth that gifted pupils do not face problems and challenges, and the study adds to the evidence that these children do face disadvantages or challenges, specifically when it comes to exposure to screen violence, say the writers.PHOTO: ISTOCK

Impact of on-screen violence amplified for pupils with higher intelligence: Study

The past months have been full of several unfortunate violent events: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, the Bastille Day attack in France, the violent coup attempt in Turkey, the sniper attack in Dallas after the killing of black men by police officers, and the targeting of more cops in Louisiana.

While many of us may not have been directly affected by these events, we watched the news as it unfolded on broadcast and social media. Witnessing such violence in the media can take a severe toll on us even when our near and dear ones are not directly affected.

Surprisingly, what research is beginning to uncover is that the impact on young children - especially young gifted children - can be worse.

IMPACT OF VIOLENCE

A large body of research has demonstrated a link between exposure to violent media and aggression and violent behaviour across multiple countries and cultures. A synthesis of this literature found different reactions in adults and children. The short-term impact of watching violence on screen was greater for adults, while the long-term effects were greater for children.

Research specifically related to children has shown that violent media events like the ones we are currently seeing can frighten and worry them. Scholars have discussed how witnessing violence harms children's mental health.

However, this impact can vary.

Our findings have implications for parents, educators and policymakers who need to be aware that violence on screen may have a negative impact on kids and, in particular, gifted kids. The impact of violent videos on verbal tasks could be particularly important, given the heavily verbal nature of schools.

We are researchers who study gifted children and violence. Although definitions of "gifted" vary, gifted children can be generally defined as those high in general intelligence as indicated by a standardised test score.

Based on this definition, gifted children tend to have many advantages. For example, higher intelligence is linked to greater achievement, motivation, memory, moral reasoning and development, social skills, sense of humour, educational and occupational attainment, leadership and even creativity. Higher intelligence is also linked to lower impulsive behaviour, delinquency and crime.

However, research also shows that higher intelligence is linked with greater emotional sensitivity. Scholars studying gifted children have argued that because of this, they are not necessarily advantaged in all contexts.

IMPACT ON GIFTED KIDS

But what things might gifted children be more sensitive to? One factor that might play a role is violence - even violence depicted in something as seemingly harmless as cartoons.

Along with doctoral student Cengiz Altay at Fatih University, we tested children from Turkey - 74 gifted ones and 70 children who were "less gifted" or had relatively lower intelligence scores. The gifted group comprised those scoring 130 or higher (top 2 per cent) on the intelligence scale. The school from which these pupils were drawn had a gifted pupils unit and they were initially screened for higher intelligence than the general population.

The study was conducted last year, over a period of half a year. At the time of the study, these children were 10 years old. We examined whether exposure to media containing violence compared to media that did not contain violence affected the verbal ability of children differently.

To do that, we asked all pupils to take a verbal test before (pre-test) and after (post-test) watching a video. Participants were asked to generate words from a different set of letters for both these tests.

The most common letters in the Turkish alphabet were randomly divided into two groups for the pre-test and post-test. In the pre-test, participants were asked to generate words starting with the letters A, L, M, S, C, E, B and H. In the post-test, participants had to generate words starting with the letters I, D, N, O, F, K and T. They had one minute to list as many words as possible that began with the particular letters.

Between the pre-test and post- test, participants in both the gifted and less gifted groups were randomly assigned to watch either a non-violent cartoon or a violent cartoon. We used two animation shows that are commonly watched by children.

One was Bakugan Battle Brawlers, a series with episodes that depict violence in a battle, and the other was Arthur, a story that revolves around the many friendship and family issues of a young boy named Arthur. This latter series does not have any episodes of screen violence.

WHAT FINDINGS SHOW

Our research, published recently in Gifted Child Quarterly, a leading journal on the study of giftedness, shows that children's abilities could be negatively impacted by exposure to violence, especially gifted children.

We found that the gifted children generated more words than the other pupils when they were asked to generate words prior to watching the video. However, the gifted pupils assigned to the video which showed violence generated slightly fewer words than the less gifted group after they had watched the video.

Conversely, when the gifted pupils were shown the cartoon without violence, they outperformed the others on both the pre-test and the post-test. This suggests that it was the violence in the cartoons that reduced the gifted pupils' mental performance, rather than simply watching a cartoon.

Overall, all kids underperformed after watching the violence, but the gifted kids showed a greater performance drop.

ARE GIFTED KIDS MORE SENSITIVE?

One commonly held belief is that gifted pupils don't need help and will do fine on their own. This perception may be due to the empirical evidence showing that many gifted pupils do end up quite successful later in life.

Scholars, however, have argued that it is a myth that gifted pupils don't face problems and challenges. Our study adds to the evidence that gifted children do face disadvantages or challenges, specifically when it comes to exposure to screen violence. Violence in the media impacts children generally, but our study shows that this negative impact is amplified for pupils with higher intelligence.

We are just beginning to explore the reasons for this surprising finding. Perhaps greater sensitivity of the gifted group leads them to react with more anxiety to the violent media. And perhaps exposure to such media lowers their working memory capacity, reduces their attention to the mental task and thus lower their performance.

In our study, gifted children thought the violent cartoon was more violent, liked it less and saw it less frequently at home than did the other children.

SCREEN VIOLENCE AND HARM

Our findings have implications for parents, educators and policymakers who need to be aware that violence on screen may have a negative impact on kids and, in particular, gifted kids. The impact of violent videos on verbal tasks could be particularly important, given the heavily verbal nature of schools.

A just-released statement from The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended, along with attention to children's "media diets", that "parents should be mindful of what shows their children watch and which games they play". Other experts too have warned that screen violence, whether real or fictional, could lead to nightmares, sleep disturbances and increased general anxiety.

Our findings support this earlier evidence. In general, the violence depicted in our videos was quite small compared with the violence that children are often exposed to, such as in the news. So, it's possible that our study provides a lower estimate on the impact of violent media on the mental performance of children.

Optimal educational development requires not only including positive impacts but also reducing and removing negative impacts. Such risk factors could be greatest for talented but disadvantaged children who likely live in neighbourhoods with higher rates of violence, which might accumulate and contribute to their eventual underachievement.

With the rise of digital devices and constant switching of tasks, it is difficult to control student exposure to violence. However, more attention needs to be paid to media diets that could detract from educational development over a period of time.

•Jonathan Wai is a research scientist at Duke University. Brad Bushman is a Professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University. Yakup Cetin is head of the Department of Foreign Language Education at Fatih University.

•This article first appeared in The Conversation (http://theconversation.com), a website which carries analyses by academics and researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'Gifted kids 'more affected by violence''. Print Edition | Subscribe