A

merica’s pediatricians are tired of watching their patients traumatized by gun violence and racism.

Now, they’re launching an effort to do something about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday issued recommendations that children under 6 be shielded from on-screen violence, that video games stop awarding points for shooting living targets, and that the media avoid downplaying the proven link between virtual and real violence.

advertisement

But the organization is also organizing a bolder and far more ambitious campaign — involving education, advocacy, and changes in clinical practice — to address the larger issues of violence and intolerance. It may include coaching pediatricians to determine whether their patients have been exposed to violence or danger. Or helping doctors understand how they might intervene to protect a child.

The group also wants to help pediatricians understand the experiences of children who are growing up in very different circumstances than their own. (Only about 4 percent of doctors are African-American.)

This broad effort, which is just in the earliest stage, was inspired in part by the images cascading out of the violence of the past two weeks.

There was the preschooler who sat in the back seat of the car as her mother’s boyfriend was fatally shot by police in Minnesota; the 15-year-old who sobbed on camera the day after his father was killed by police in Louisiana; and two sets of children who mourned their policemen fathers, shot in an act of retaliatory hatred in Texas.

“Seeing this unfold and recognizing how all of these episodes impact children, we can’t just say something like ‘How terrible this is,’ and we can’t be defeatist and say ‘Well, I’m not sure what we can do,’” said Dr. Bernard Dreyer, president of the pediatricians’ organization. “It doesn’t matter if we will succeed or not. We still have to act.”

The science is compelling: “Toxic stress” caused by racism and violence can take a heavy toll on the learning, behavior, and health of children, said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Kids don’t have to be the direct victim of violence to become overly stressed. Watching current events on TV, or picking up a parent’s anxiety may be enough to lead a child to feel unsafe, said Shonkoff, who is not directly involved in the Academy of Pediatrics’ effort.

Such “toxic stress” can affect brain development, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, metabolic regulation and of course, mental health. “We’re jeopardizing children’s lifelong health,” he said.

Parents can make a crucial difference in buffering children from stresses — but they can’t do it alone, Shonkoff said.

Before they can step in as advocates, pediatricians will need help overcoming their own discomfort in talking about race, said Dr. Joseph Wright, chairman of pediatrics at Howard University College of Medicine.

Wright said he can vividly remember every detail of the first time he was called a racist slur. The sense of betrayal and confusion from an event like that — which virtually every black child experiences at some point — can cause trauma.

Pediatricians should be educated to help the child and family through such painful moments, he said.

Tanya Nixon-Silberg would love to have those conversations with her pediatrician.

When Nixon-Silberg, who lives in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, told her biracial 3-year-old about the recent water crisis in Flint, Mich., the toddler immediately worried about the safety of water coming out of their own tap. So Nixon-Silberg suggested buying bottles of water to send to Flint.

“Changing the narrative … to ‘What can we do?’ it immediately changes her mind about it,” Nixon-Silberg said. “They feel like they’re a part of the solution and not so much that ‘This is going to happen to me.’”

In May, Nixon-Silberg co-founded a social justice organization called Wee The People, which sponsors child-oriented dance, music and art-making events, some in collaboration with the Boston Public Library.

She said her own hopelessness lifts when she sees the enthusiasm that children have for such social justice efforts. “If I see this through my child’s eyes, the possibilities are endless,” she said.

Newsletters

Sign up for our Daily Recap newsletter

Please enter a valid email address.

The American Academy of Pediatrics plans to convene a task force to work on these issues. It will “address gun violence as well as the underlying contributors of racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, xenophobia, terrorism, and any other form of intolerance,” the group said.

At the local, state, and national levels, the AAP’s 66,000 members can be foot soldiers advocating the academy’s positions, Dreyer said. The group will also look for other organizations it can partner with to amplify its voice, and for causes it can support, such as providing funding for gun violence research.

“Education, clinical practice, advocacy: We have roles in all of those areas,” Dreyer said. “We have yet to start the conversation but we will … Soon.”

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • So much dogma and motivated reasoning, and so little science. As always this is counter-productive and disappointing.
    PG, I assume you are an anti-vaxxer. Apparently no amount of evidence will convince this crowd as the goalposts keep moving in the arguments.
    Video game violence? The science does not support harm. APA needs to be a science-based organization or loses credibility for it’s good recommendations. Pinball, comic books, cartoons, role-playing games– the unsupported dogma migrates to whatever is current, despite the continued evidence that does not support harm.
    So tiring.

    • Sadly ignorant folks like you will never understand the basic facts of life, you don’t need science but you could use some common sense and critical thinking skills

  • Says the profession that injects children with known carcinogens and neurotoxins which have never been tested for safety.

  • “Proven link” between violent videogames and violence in real life? No, the statistics show that violent games lead to fewer violent crimes, and have for decades now. This article is suspect, and the AAP is pushing an agenda unrelated to the data at hand.

  • So, fake, on screen violence is bad but forcing a child to deal with a violent, desk throwing, classmate every day is just fine? Seriously? I shielded my daughter from on screen violence and violent video games and that all went out the window when my child was exposed by and extremely violent child in daycare. At 4 years old the kid was so violent that he sent a little girl to the ER after terrorizing all the children for months. My daughter, and the girl that went to the hospital, would have been better off exposed to violent video games – at least they can choose to turn those off.

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine.

X