Video Games and Violence

Since the Parkland, FL high school shooting in February (which, at the time, was the eighteenth school shooting in 2018; there have been more since), gun violence has become a hot topic in the media and American society in general (see the recent blog about gun violence and the second season of the series 13 Reasons Why). The issue of gun violence is important for teens and their families not only as we think about how to keep kids safe but also as we consider what may be the underlying causes for such horrible acts. To put it in perspective, the perpetrators of four of the largest school shootings over the last decade were all between the ages of 17-23 years. One topic that has received growing attention is the role of violent video games in promoting youth aggression and violence.

The use of video games reaches a maximum during the adolescent years, with about 97% of youth reporting some playing time. Americans between 8-18 years old use video games for about 1.15 hours per day on average, but some report that they play ≥ 40 hours per week. Additionally, violence is a common theme in the gaming world – 90% of video games have some violent content and 40% of games include serious violence against other characters. With this much time investment, many have wondered about the potential effects of this exposure over time.

So what has the research on video games and violence shown? Well, two terms need defining before I explain: aggression and violence. Aggression is “any action that is intended to cause harm to another who is motivated to avoid being harmed” while violence is “an extreme form of aggression that has the potential to produce severe physical harm, such as injury or death, to another”. So, aggressive behavior is not necessarily violent, but violent behavior is always aggressive.

A meta-analysis (research-speak for “very thorough look at current research”) conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that violent video game exposure was associated with increases in several markers of aggression. One of these was increased aggressive behavior, such as hitting, pushing, and fighting, which is one of the most researched and well-established links with violent video game use. Other markers included increased aggressive thoughts and intentions as well as hostility and anger. Interestingly, the review also found that video game violence lead to decreased sensitivity to aggression as well as less empathy to the distress of others.

Despite these findings, the APA meta-analysis reported that there was too little research available to determine if there is an association between violent video game use and actual violence or delinquent/criminal behavior. A recent study (released after the APA analysis) did report little to no correlation between violent video game use and real-life youth violence…more studies are sure to pop up on the topic. Finally, while there has been some evidence that more violent video game use is associated with a higher risk for aggression, there is not enough research to say if there is a particular level of exposure that leads to problems.

What do we make of all this as parents, families, and health care providers? As of now, the research suggests that violent video game is likely a risk factor for aggressive behaviors and thoughts but not necessarily criminal behavior. However, one risk factor almost never (if ever) totally predicts an outcome or behavior. We must consider violent video game use in the context of many other risk factors, such as parental relationships and exposure to real-world violence.

This is not to say that all violent video game use must be stopped at once. In fact, Dr. Allen did a great blog post in August 2016 about some potential positive effects of video game use. However, this evidence does give us even more reason to pay attention to the content of the video games and amount of time that teens spend playing them. The time given to video games could be used for being physically active, learning new hobbies, or spending time with friends instead!

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