Of 3000 parents surveyed by What They Play: The Parents Guide To Video Games, the majority said that they were more afraid of their children playing video games than seeing porn when away from home. Mitt Romney warned, “Pornography and violence poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this cesspool.” Hillary Clinton said, “Grand Theft Auto, which has so many demeaning messages about women, and so encourages violent imagination and activities, and it scares parents.” Set aside for the moment that some politicians will just throw any sensational speculation into the oratory stew to make an impression (the roommates of the Virginia Tech Shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, said that Cho never played video games). Could so many parents and politicians be right? Does playing violent video games transform ordinary, well adjusted kids into violent maniacs? The FBI and the United States Secret Service don’t think so. In fact, it is has been observed by the most comprehensive study of kid gamers to date that playing violent video games can be therapeutic for many kids, enabling them to express teenage frustration, rebellion and experimentation in a safe, non-threatening way.
That’s crazy talk. Show me some proof.
Following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, the US Department of Education and the US Secret Service founded the “Safe Schools Initiative” to try to determine if school shootings can be predicted and prevented. In “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative“(1) found that although over half of school shooting attackers demonstrated some interest in violence through expressive outlets like literature and games, they found that “there was no common type of interest in violence indicated…One-eighth of the attackers (12%) exhibited an interest in violent video games. But “the largest group of attackers (37%) exhibited an interest in violence in their own writings, such as poems, essays or journal entries.”(1)
Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy’s “National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime” and “Critical Incident Response Group” wrote a report called, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective“. In that report they say that “unusual or aberrant behaviors, interests, hobbies, etc., are hallmarks of the student destined to become violent”(2) and that you can’t easily identify would-be violent criminals or pigeon-hole people with one suspicious characteristic as potentially violent. Identifying a violent personality involves a four-prong assessment of: a person’s personality traits and behavior, family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics.
These organizations were specifically seeking to find causes of violent behavior. They did not point to any significant influence of violent video games on the complex personality of a person who would act upon violent impulses. What about violent video games’ more subtle affects on behavior, like bullying or aggressive attitudes toward others?
The first and most thorough study of actual game-playing kids.
Cheryl K. Olson, ScD and Lawrence Kutner, PhD (of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Co-Directors at the Center for Mental Health & Media) weren’t satisfied with the thoroughness of previous studies on the relationship between violent video games and actual violent behavior, if any. They found that most studies were incomplete in important ways. Shortcomings they found were:
- Artificially created focus groups of inappropriately older respondents, including older teens and college students.
- Respondents were only exposed to pre-selected games, not games they actually choose to play.
- Respondents only played game for a short period of time.
- Studies measured playing time of various games vs. the affects of violent content.
- Reports that used the terms “aggression” and “violence” interchangeably.
- Use of outdated games.
- Correlation and causation are overlooked.
Olson and Kutner designed a study that directly examined 1254 middle-school age game players (54% boys and 46% girls) and some of their parents. Their study involved questionnaires and focus groups that could measure what games kids actually play (they were not asked to play selected games for the purpose of this study), how much they play, and the affects of those games on their behavior. Their findings were published in the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do.
Olson and Kutner found that kids played video games (not specifically violent games) for creative reasons: “to learn new things” and “to create my own world”. Most kids played games to relax. Often kids would play violent video games following a bad day at school because it helped them purge their aggressive feelings in a non-threatening way. Kids also explained that they used video games to indulge in rebellious, experimental behavior without having to actually place themselves in harm’s way. Kids almost always played games socially, with other kids, in addition to sometimes playing by themselves. Only a small percentage of kids (18% boys, 12% girls) exclusively played games alone.
Olson and Kutner observed that because video game playing was a socially bonding experience for most kids, many who did not participate were social misfits and were more likely than game-playing kids to get into fights. They also found that kids who played M-Rated games, especially girls, more often reported getting into fights. The report of their findings stop short of concluding that violent games were the cause of aggression, however. They observed that in some cases correlation seemed to be present, but that causation remained unclear. For example, “In one study, players tended to be less angry after playing a violent game, but this was not true for subjects who scored high on trait anger and aggression.” (3)
For a specialized group of kids, those with social and/or learning disorders, Olson and Kutner found that games (even violent games) were sometimes a starting place for those kids to relate to and interact with their peers. An achievement that was otherwise unattainable for them. Their interaction with other kids through game playing, enabled them to develop and sustain friendships and even garner the admiration of a group of peers. These kids were also more likely than others to use violent video games as a way to safely purge angry feelings.
Which came first, the game or the anger?
Olson and Kutner emphatically point out that even though their study points to a correlation between violent video games and some aggressive behaviors, the study does not prove that the games cause the behavior. It is their observation (although their study was not designed to prove) that many kids with angry and aggressive tendencies are drawn to violent outlets, like violent video games. It would require a different study, that takes a more circumspect look at the psychology, home life, and development of those angry and aggressive kids, to determine if aggressive behavior would be (and is) expressed in other ways irrespective of the influence of video games. Olson says, “There is little evidence of a substantial link between exposure to violent interactive games and serious real-life violence or crime.”(4) She says that further research is needed to discover if games have subtle negative affects on behavior and attitudes aside from violence. She also declares a need for research that highlights the potential positive “benefits of violent games for some children and adults.”(4)
Should parents fear game playing?
It is difficult to imagine any reason that a responsible parent would encourage a child to play violent video games. But should parents worry about protecting their children from violent video games when they are at a friend’s house? Given that video games are so widely played, and often regarded as social common ground for kids, perhaps an effort to “protect” kids from games is not only fruitless, but misses the point. Olson and Kutner think that the question needs to be reframed to ask, “How do I help my child make the most of time spent playing video games?” They say, “You don’t want either to meet force with force or to abdicate control. Instead, you want to work with and redirect your child’s skills and interests.” (5)
How can I parents positively influence video game playing?
Stay involved: Play video games with the kids to know the games they play and to understand the gaming medium. Only about 5% of the child respondents in Olson and Kutner’s study said that they played games with their parents “always” or “often”.
Get perspective: Kids in Olson and Kutner’s report said that they were more disturbed by watching the evening news than by playing violent video games. Mentally healthy kids can distinguish the difference between fact and fiction. It is logical that graphic reports of violent realities (such as those reported in television news) can have much more of a negative impact on a person’s world view than an animated depiction of violent fantasy.
Be a mentor: Set the parental controls on games and media devices, but don’t rely on them. Throughout life children will be exposed to positive and negative information and media. It is the parent’s job to help frame a child’s understanding of their world and teach them how to assimilate what they experience and respond appropriately. Call it “street smarts”. Call it “good judgement”. Call it “good old fashioned common sense”. These are the things that parents need to teach children who will grow up to be functional, successful adults. Restrictions and controls alone will never help a child learn good life skills.
Grand Theft Childhood
The authors of the book Grand Theft Childhood bust several other myths about violent video games on their website www.GrandTheftChildhood.com Including:
Myth: The growth in violent video game sales is linked to the growth in youth violence — especially school violence — throughout the country.
Myth: School shooters fit a profile that includes a fascination with violent media, especially violent video games.
The podcast Tech Talk For Families featured an interview with Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson discussing the findings of their study as published in their book, “Grand Theft Childhood”. It is a thorough and enlightening review of how and why they initiated their research and some of their surprising findings. If you don’t have time to read the book or the website www.GrandTheftChildhood.com you can listen to what they have to say in the car! (Click here)
Sources & Further Reading
1. US Secret Service and US Department of Education “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States”
2. Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective“.
3.Unsworth G, Devilly GJ, Ward T. The effect of playing violent videogames on adolescents: Should parents be quaking in their boots? Psychol Crime Law. 2007;13: 383-394.
4. Cheryl K. Olson “Media violence research and youth violence data: why do they conflict?”
5. Dr. Lawrence Kutner and Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do
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