Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Son of a Gun!

Cops and Robbers.  Cowboys and Indians.  Or, to be au courant, Cowboys and Aliens.

Would you let your kids play with toy guns?  If your answer is “yes,” you’re in the minority.  A 2009 survey conducted in pediatricians’ offices of over 800 parents found that 67% would “never” allow their child to play with a toy gun. (“Community norms on toy guns”)  I personally find this hard to believe, as most of my son’s friends have toy weapons, but maybe he runs with sociopaths.  More likely, the parents in this study were trying to curry favor with their doctors, just as I tell my kids’ dentist that they “rarely” eat candy and “always” brush their teeth.

At the same time, I do know parents who have a zero tolerance weapons policy, to the point that they spell out the word “G-U-N” in front of little Rambo.  Their concern, of course, is that playing with toy weapons might make them more aggressive kids, which might result in their becoming more aggressive adults.  But is there any data to substantiate this concern?

Before you read any further, here’s my full disclosure:  We hosted a Nerf gun birthday party for our 8-year-old son and 20 of his buddies, complete with a stadium rock soundtrack and American Gladiator code names: 

Based on this uncontrolled, observational study (and when I say “uncontrolled,” I really mean “out of control”), toy gun play led to increased levels of aggression and decreased levels of cooperation, with the birthday boy entering full sulk mode as every kid jockeyed for control of his Vulcan EBF-25 machine gun.  (Yes, you can buy machine guns for kids.) 

Before you scoff at my unscientific report, let me assure you that the quality of the “war toy” literature is little better, and the quantity scant, especially compared to the vast number of studies on violent video games and T.V. shows.  In one typical study, preschoolers were watched through a one-way mirror playing with their usual toys, new airplanes, or new guns.  (“Effects of toy guns and airplanes on children’s antisocial free play behavior”)  Two observers counted the number of instances of “physical, antisocial behavior,” such as hitting, kicking, shoving, or grabbing objects away from others.  “Thematic aggression,” e.g., pretending to kill someone with a gun, was not counted as antisocial behavior, though some would object to this exclusion.  Here were their results:
Guns clearly led to higher rates of antisocial behaviors, though airplanes were not far behind.  The main flaw in this and similar studies is, of course, that the observers were not blinded to the intervention – they obviously knew when the children were exposed to guns vs. airplanes – and you could see how it would be easy to find aggression when you want to find aggression, especially if you have a postdoctoral thesis riding on the results.

To get past the subjective nature of this research, investigators at Knox College came up with an ingenious way of measuring the effects of gunplay on aggression.  (“Guns, testosterone and aggression")  In this study, male college students were divided into two groups:  those who were allowed to play with (though not shoot) a pellet gun, and those who were allowed to play with the game Mouse Trap.  Testosterone levels in saliva samples were measured before and after the play sessions, as testosterone levels have been shown to correlate with aggressive behavior.  You probably won’t be surprised to hear that testosterone levels increased after exposure to the gun, but not the game.  Here’s where it gets interesting:  After the play session, investigators asked the students to add as much hot sauce as they wanted to a cup of water, which they were told would be given to another, anonymous subject to drink.  Hot sauce administration has been validated in other studies as a marker for physical aggression; it’s sort of a sadistic twist to the infamous Milgram’s fake shock experiments.  Turns out that the guys who played with the gun added three times as much hot sauce to the water as those who played with little mousie.  “Interestingly,” the authors deadpanned, “several subjects were disappointed when told that the sample of hot sauce and water they had prepared would not actually be given to the next subject.”

Whether this research applies at all to girls, or even prepubescent boys, is a big question mark.  And while there seems to be a short-term link between gunplay and aggression, there are absolutely no studies, not even retrospective ones, that examine whether adult antisocial  behavior might be linked to playing with weapons as children.  I guess we parents are left with performing what doctors call “N of 1” experiments – seeing how our own particular child responds to weapon play.  So I say let them play Cowboys and Aliens! But if their playdates end up being more Pulp Fiction than science fiction….well, maybe it’s time to pack the six-shooter away.


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