Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones
Published in 2002
Genre: Nonfiction, mass media, child psychology
“My first memory is of tearing the monster’s arm off.”
Media violence is a phrase that is inherently volatile due to the images it conjures in its readers. Spurts of blood, the deafening reports of gunshots, and screeching victims are all terrifying to think of, but even more so when considering a child being subjected to them. Killing Monsters, by Gerard Jones, seeks to better understand how media violence affects children and whether those effects are inherently and exclusively negative.
Jones begins Killing Monsters by describing his personal experiences (I am aware of the phrasing in this sentence and, if you were wondering, it was intentional). He grew up as a child who loved to have his mother read Beowulf to him and dreamed of fighting off big, scary monsters. This passion for stories led him to become a writer of super hero comics and screenplays. After spending time in the industry, Jones began to lead workshops about storytelling with children in order to use the positive effects of media violence to help them cope with their personal issues.
The media has been under fire for depicting violence for a long time; public outrage at media violence began shortly after the American Civil War with dime novels and continued when these transformed into pulp magazines, adapted to film in the 20s, and sustained their popularity through Hollywood feature films. Now it encompasses everything from television programs to comic books, music, and video games.
Jones cites studies conducted by multiple psychologists and anecdotal evidence from experts in related fields; he concludes that children need to play with what is scary in order to make sense of it. He discusses how after the terrorist attack on 9/11, G.I. Joe sales rose sharply before being pulled from store shelves at the request of parents. Children aren’t as literal-minded as adults, so they don’t respond to tragedy as viscerally and need to work through these difficult concepts in the only way they know how: through play.
Children use their time playing to learn social skills and hone their imaginations. They learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy fairly well on their own, though some children do need additional adult supervision and attention to help send appropriate messages. Jones argues that children aren’t passive in receiving media; they interact with the media by choosing which shows they watch, what music they listen to, and what video games they play rather than simply sit and be imposed upon.
Killing Monsters also takes a couple of chapters to focus on media violence’s impact on young girls; Jones posits that they are still just as aggressive as boys, but in a different way. Around age six, boys and girls separate and the girls become less aggressive physically and more socially. Jones closes the book out by giving some ideas on how parents can effectively use media with their children rather than fighting against it.
I admit that my interest in this book was based on personal confirmation bias. As a child, I played war games and video games, watched violent television, continue to listen to aggressive music, and was a kid at the time of 9/11. I was eight during the year this book was published, so I fall into the age group Jones refers to when he expresses optimism for my generation; little did he know that we would kill the casual dining restaurant.
Killing Monsters is interesting to read in retrospect and I can’t help but wonder what Jones made of the Gears of War, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto video games, among others. This book is dated, and there is some good information, but online multiplayer was in its infancy at the point of publication, streaming services hadn’t even been created, and there were no smartphones. Despite this, his general concepts hold true and speak to the credibility of his conclusions
I did feel that Killing Monsters became repetitive after a while (there’s that phrasing again); the book could probably have lost 50 to 100 pages and been just as effective. Another factor for my lack of interest of rereading the same conclusions could be because I read this shortly after the Las Vegas mass shooting; knowing I was going home to read about more violence and mass shootings that took place in schools didn’t make this a book I was particularly itching to continue. The point of view of the book made it feel callous in the wake of what had happened, but I recognize that this was purely circumstantial.
Verdict: 3 debunked studies out of 5
Recommended for: Millenials, gamers, adults who think that their children’s wellbeing is only negatively impacted by the media rather than their lack of involvement (whoops, there’s my bias again), fans of child psychology, and those who don’t mind repetitive points popping up in a book repetitively (get it?).
Not recommended for: People who are convinced that all of their children’s behavioral issues are a product of media entertainment and violence, people who don’t like having their faith in scientific studies shaken, those who don’t understand bias in studies, fans of remaining ignorant, or those who know the correct evolution of Squirtle (he messes it up and says Wartortle is its final form; talk about losing credibility with your reader!).