The Unbiased Truth About Violent Video Games

If you have a child, you’ve probably considered whether or not your child should play video games.  If your kids are preteens or teens, like ours are, you’ve probably thought even more about violent video games.  The information in the blogosphere is confusing, often focusing on finding causes or easy explanations for tragic events.  So what’s the unbiased truth? What does the research show?  Surprisingly, published research reports are pretty consistent.  With a few exceptions, research studies show that children or adolescents who play violent video games have an increased likelihood for aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, lower academic performance, sleep problems, moral disengagement, and attention problems. In fact, the statistical correlation between violent video games and aggressive behavior is considered to be stronger than that between calcium intake and bone mass! Although playing violent video games has not been linked directly to actual violence, the scientific consensus seems to be clear: playing violent video games leads to aggressive thoughts and behavior in kids and teens.  Some food for thought when chewing on the video game decision.

What the research says:

I’ve always wondered if playing video games, especially violent ones, has a negative effect on our children.  Full disclosure: we don’t have violent video games in our house.  In fact, we currently don’t have any video games in our house.  We’ve discovered that having video games in the house is incompatible with good grades in math for our middle-school-aged son.  But I digress.  Our son does play video games at the houses of friends, and often those are violent games. I also grew up with a Dad that loved violent karate and Clint Eastwood movies.  By the time I was in high school, I’d watched “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” enough to know the lines by heart.  So I’m definitely not averse to violence.  That being said, I still wondered if watching violent movies or playing violent games was a smart move. 

So I went through published research reports and compiled the results.  Surprisingly, there are more than 100 published reports relating to violent video games and behavior.  In fact, published reports looking at the effects of violent media go back more than 40 years to the 1970’s [33] and are surprisingly consistent.  With a few exceptions (which I comment on below), the results show that kids who play violent video games exhibit the following:

  • Aggressive behavior, which is defined as serious forms of physical aggression that have a significant risk of seriously injuring the victim. [4,10,11, 15,16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, 32, 33].  Anderson et al. found that the relationship between playing violent video games and aggression was strong; so strong, in fact, that it was stronger than “the effect of condom use on decreased HIV risk, the effect of exposure to passive smoke at work and lung cancer, and the effect of calcium intake on bone mass” [21, 29].  In addition, the more time spent playing these games, the more aggressive the behavior becomes [16, 23], and these effects were observed as much as 6 months [16] and years [4,23] later. 
  • Aggressive thoughts, aggressive feelings and increased heart rate.  [12,18, 23].
  • Desensitization or Moral Disengagement, which is defined as the “process during which negative emotions experienced automatically by viewers in response to a particular violent or gory scene decline in intensity after many exposures” [2,11,18,21].  One report found that the act of dehumanization caused by playing violent video games was what evoked the aggressive behavior.  So aggression was “triggered when victimizers perceive the victim to be less human” [11]. 
  • Decreased academic performance and attention in kids aged 6-10 years old [21].  In this study, the “amount of time playing video games and exposure to violence in video games are associated with lower school performance, increased aggression, attention problems, and externalizing behavior”.  Alternatively, educational games were associated with fewer attention problems and mildly associated with a higher school GPA suggesting that video game playing can be associated with some positive outcomes.
  • Sleep Problems [28].  In this study, the parents of kids aged 3-5 years old completed surveys and journals documenting the types of media the kids used, the amount of time spent on the media, and the sleep habits of the kids. The researchers found that “evening media use and daytime violent media use were both associated with increased sleep problems, but daytime nonviolent media use was not.”  So kids who engaged in violent media either during the day or at night had more sleep problems than kids who did not.   These effects were not mitigated when the adults participated with the kids, and were not varied based on “type of violence or whether content was animated versus live-action” [28]. 

I should state clearly that there were no clinical studies relating violent video games to real-life violent actions.  The results obtained were limited to aggressive behaviors (that are “intended to injure or irritate another person” [31]) or aggressive thoughts.   So although the published reports documenting a link between these negative behaviors and video game play were many, none connected violent video games directly to violent actions or crimes.

But what about people who say there is no link?

There are researchers who have found no link between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior.  Actually, I should say researcher, as in one.  Of all the published reports in Pubmed (and there are more than 110 of them), only Dr. C.J. Ferguson and his group at Texas A&M International University have found no negative effects of playing violent video games.  Some have questioned his methods of analysis or his experimental design or his interpretation of the results.  Ultimately, though, his conclusion that video games have no negative effects [3] has not been corroborated by other labs. 

Many bloggers cite Ferguson’s publications to justify the continued “lack of consensus” and confusion in this area.  But when one looks objectively at the wealth of data out there, you see that all but one of the groups working in this area come to the same conclusions: violent video games lead to the traits noted above. 

What does this all mean?

Dr. Huesmann, a University of Michigan professor and an expert in the development of aggressive behavior in children, has written the following:

“The best single predictor of violent behavior in older adolescents, young adults, and even middle aged adults is aggressive behavior when they were younger. Thus, anything that promotes aggressive behavior in young children statistically is a risk factor for violent behavior in adults as well [31]”.

A pretty scary statement for sure.  But we should keep in mind that none of the experts argue that a child who plays violent games will turn into a violent adult.  In addition, all agree that the risk of violent behavior is dependent on multiple factors, not just gaming habits. 

So what does this all mean?  The scientific results are in, and they seem to show that, at best, playing violent video games may not be the best use of time for kids, and at worst, should be avoided. That being said, your decision should be based on multiple things, including this information, the temperament of your child, your involvement in his playing and the types of games played. I’ve tried to provide one factor in this multifactorial decision.  But keep one thing in mind: as long as you’re making an educated decision, the result will be the best for you and your child.

Interested in hearing more?

National Public Radio did a story on this topic in 2011 [“It's A Duel: How Do Violent Video Games Affect Kids?”, by Shankar Vedantam, aired on Morning Edition on July 7, 2011].  It’s a great story and they interviewed two of the researchers cited in this blog (Dr. Ferguson of TAMIU and Dr. Bushmann of the Ohio State University).  The story discusses their different conclusions regarding the science of video games and aggressive behavior.  The most interesting line in the story was the last one:

Bushman and Ferguson agree on one thing: as fathers, they've banned their own kids from playing violent video games.

References:

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2.     Brief report: Does exposure to violent video games increase moral disengagement among adolescents?  Gabbiadini A, Andrighetto L, Volpato C.  J Adolesc. 2012 Oct;35(5):1403-6.

3.     A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: a 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents.  Ferguson CJ, San Miguel C, Garza A, Jerabeck JM.  J Psychiatr Res. 2012 Feb;46(2):141-6.

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