I recently received this request from someone who gives presentations about parenting:
"I am writing for some advice: In February I am invited to a private school (K-8) to speak to parents, teachers and students. For the parent presentation, the sponsors have asked me to address the issue of language used by elementary students (I believe these are second and third grade boys) who are telling each other: 'I am going to kill you' or 'I am going to cut you into pieces.' Now, it is my impression that they are getting these messages not from home, but from the media. What advice would you give to parents, besides reducing media exposure AND co-viewing?"
Here's my response:
"Aaahhh! The language issue!! There's very little research about it but it is clearly an effect of media.
It's very clear that kids pick up language and expressions from the media. They can range from nonsense words to profanity. There's no doubt about it.
Avoiding exposure to the offending language is clearly the most effective. However, that's easier said than done. The problem with undoing it once it's heard is that forbidding certain types of language is likely in many kids to increase the likelihood that the language will be repeated . . . On the other hand, it's important that kids know what their parents' values are.
Co-viewing with discussion is definitely better than not co-viewing; but co-viewing and saying nothing is worse than not co-viewing, because it serves as a tacit endorsement. A discussion should be cooperative rather than authoritarian. In other words, it's better to say, 'how do you think you would feel if someone said that to you?' than to say 'that's horrible language.' It's good to have discussions about hostility and aggression in general, and programs that model such behavior can be good 'teachable moments.'
Now, you're not really talking about profanity, but rather violent speech, like 'I'm going to kill you.' To some extent, phrases like have entered our language without meaning. I remember in elementary school, I once said (hearing others talk like that), 'My mother's going to kill me if I get home late,' but not meaning it at all.
I guess what may be important in the question you raise is the manner in which these kids say their aggressive phrases. If the words are said with hostility, then I think it's a problem. Hostile feelings are unhealthy in and of themselves; they often interfere with the development of positive social relationships; and they can fuel and intensify aggressive behavior. So it's important to reduce children's exposure to to media that promote hostility and hostile verbal expressions.
I hope this is helpful."