It is hard to believe that kids have been playing video games as a regular part of their lives for more than 40 years now. In fact, today we see more than 97% of U.S. teens playing video games, many of which may be considered violent in varying degrees.
As a bored 13 year-old, I remember how exciting it was when the first commercial video game, Pong, was released in 1972. There was something inherently mind-numbing and at the same time quite challenging about moving a single paddle back-and-forth across the television screen in a never ending quest to slap the cyber ball, which was actually shaped like a square, to the other player so they could furiously move their paddle in a singularly responsive attempt to slap the cyber ball back across the screen. There was nothing violent associated with Pong, unless you think hitting a ball with cyber-paddles is an offense against puritan values.
Of course, the video gaming experience today is quite different that it was when I played Pong as an alternative to running around outside in the “fresh air”. Rather than cheering their child on as he or she slaps the cyber ball across the TV, parents are now asking whether the experience of violent video games such as Call of Duty, Alien:Isolation, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and the like is adversely influencing their kids behavior. In fact, blood and gore, intense violence, strong sexual content, and use of drugs are just a few of the phrases used by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in describing the content of several games in the Grand Theft Auto series.
Legitimate questions arise. Are these modern video games turning our kids into little pathologic time bombs or do they simply keep them occupied while simultaneously improving their hand-eye coordination? Is there really any evidence of a wide-spread cause and effect relationship between violent video games and violent behavior exhibited by children and adolescents?
Well, according to a new American Psychological Association Task Force report, the two decades of research conducted to date does not conclusively support a causal relationship between violent video games and a child or adolescent’s propensity to engage in criminal violence. Rather, the evidence indicates that no single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. It is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior and violent video game use is one such risk factor.
Numb to violence. Nevertheless, there is a consistent link between violent video game use and increases we see in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression. Moreover, studies have found that children exposed to violent video games actually become numb to violence. But, these may not constitute the totality of effects these games are having on our kids.
A newly released study from the Dartmouth College Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences concludes that “many young players come to identify with anti-social characters they portray in the virtual world, and gradually adopt behaviors that align with that persona, including smoking, drinking, and, for some, risky sex.”
Admittedly, there are many differing views concerning the effects that violent video games can have on children and adolescents. But, the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry agree that exposure to violent media, including violent video games, can contribute to real life violent behavior and harm children in other ways such as impeding appropriate emotional reactions, causing nightmares and sleep problems, impairing school performance, and leading to aggressive behavior and bullying. They have concluded that violent video games are particularly harmful because they are interactive, encourage role-playing, and provide virtual rehearsals for actual violence.
Other researchers have concluded that kids, especially boys, are simply drawn to play violent video games in order to compete and win. They believe that these types of games are nothing more than a modern version of rough housing play that boys engage in as part of normal development; video games simply offer an outlet for the competition for status or to establish a pecking order.
It is difficult to succinctly summarize the past 20 years of studies on the effects that violent video games may have on our children and adolescents. But, there are some findings that tend to consistently rise to the surface:
- violent media, including violent video games, can increase thoughts of violence in teenagers,
- teens become increasingly suspicious of others’ motives when they play violent video games,
- teens who play violent video games are more likely to argue with others than teens who do not play such games, and
- teens who play violent video games act aggressively and are more likely to be hostile soon after playing.
The bottom line seems to indicate that violent video games are a powerful teaching tool that can influence a developing teen in a problematic direction. As parents, there are two relatively straight forward and effective actions we can take to try to minimize the effects these games are having on our kids.
- First, if we aren’t successful in convincing our kids to avoid violent video games entirely, which is more often than not the case, we can do our best to limit the amount of time our kids play these games.
- Second, we can take steps to help our kids clearly understand the difference between the consequences of actions in the video games and the real world consequences of violent and anti-social behavior.
If you continue to have concerns about your child’s video gaming habits or if your child is having difficulty with mood behavior, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician, or school counselor to help arrange a referral to a trained and qualified mental health professional.