In Part 1 of this post, I talked about research on how playing violent video games is related to aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Overall, the evidence points to small effects of violent video games on aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior. These effects don’t always appear and seem to be greater for some people than others, but they also may have a cumulative impact over time.
If you’re the type of person who tends to cover your eyes during the violent scenes in a movie, and you cringe at violent slapstick humor, it may be hard to imagine why anyone would want to play violent video games. Yet there’s ample evidence for the popularity of all kinds of violent media, including violent video games.
What’s the appeal for kids of violent video games?
There are horrific cases of people who claim that they used violent video games to “train” for real world violence, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the man who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, at a Norwegian summer camp. However, the vast majority of kids who are drawn to violent video games are not playing with any intention of hurting anyone in real life.
Video games are often exciting and engrossing. They offer kids challenges and a sense of mastery, when they surmount the challenges. They’re also fun to play with friends.
According to Cheryl Olson (2010), the main motivation that children report for playing video games of any kind is “It’s just fun!” Over 75% of middle school boys and over 60% of middle school girls in the sample strongly agreed with this reason. Competition, excitement, and something to do when bored were other frequently endorsed motivations. Other researchers have pointed to social interaction, challenge/competence, control, and fantasy as reasons why kids play video games (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2006. See also Przybylski et al., 2009).
Interestingly, over 25% of boys, but only about 5% of girls in Olson’s study, attributed their interest in playing video game to the fact that they “like the guns & other weapons.”
For some children, mostly boys, weapons and violence hold a special fascination, but this interest doesn’t translate to aggressive behavior. I’ve known quite a few gentle boys in my practice who are fascinated by wars and “army guys” and love drawing bombs, explosions, knives, and dripping blood. And every preschool teacher has seen little boys turn a stick into a sword or nibble their graham cracker into a gun. Many boys—though certainly not all—also enjoy rough and tumble play.
I want to emphasize: These are not generally troubled children! They’re young boys who are exploring the fantasy of being powerful, even invincible. They’re working out their position in the pack of their peers and their conflicting wishes to be “good” and “bad.”
Like listening to ghost stories or riding a roller coaster, playing violent video games can offer the delicious thrill (for those who like that sort of thing) of experiencing “danger” in a context of safety. Life and death are the ultimate stakes!
But it’s important to keep in mind that no matter how many people “die” in a violent video game, no one actually gets hurt. The violence isn’t “real.”
So, are violent video games just the 21st century version of rough and tumble play? Not quite. The images in violent video games don’t come from a child’s imagination; they’re developed by adults with a profit motive. They can be extremely vivid, gory, and immersive, and once our kids are exposed to these images, they can’t un-see them.
Risk and resilience for children and violent video games
The most useful way to think about violent video games may be to consider them a risk factor for aggression–just like potato chips are a risk factor for obesity. No one would recommend a diet consisting only of potato chips, and no one would recommend that children play nonstop, gruesomely violent video games. On the other hand, some people enjoy potato chips, and in the context of a generally healthy lifestyle, there are probably enough other factors countering the negative effects of eating some potato chips or playing some violent video games.
More specifically, Douglas Gentile and Brad Bushman (2012) did a study of third and fourth graders, assessing how various risk factors related to physical aggression six months later (according to reports from the children themselves, their peers, and their teachers). The risk factors they looked at were: 1) prior violent media exposure (including playing violent video games), 2) prior physical fights, 3) prior experience being bullied of physically victimized, 4) being male, 5) having parents who were rarely involved in monitoring their media activities, and 6) having a tendency to assume people do things out of deliberate meanness (hostile attribution bias).
Having more risk factors dramatically increased a child’s likelihood of getting in a fight that year. If a child had one risk factor, the researchers could predict with 30% accuracy whether that child would get in a fight. If a child had four risk factors, they could predict fighting with 67% accuracy, and if a child had all six risk factors, the researchers could predict with 94% accuracy whether that child would get into a fight in the coming year.
Implications for parents – What’s YOUR policy on violent video games?
So, what should parents do about all of this?
All of the studies about the effects of violent video games described in Part I of this post involve average responses. There is plenty of evidence that violent video games have small effects “on average” on children’s mood, thoughts, and behavior. But the bottom line is that you are the expert on your particular child and family, so you are in the best position to decide what makes sense for your child. You have three main options regarding violent video games:
– Just say no
Some parents will decide to ban violent video games from their homes, just on principle, because they don’t want to support or encourage violent entertainment. This is a perfectly legitimate position. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if the effects of violent video games are big or small, or under what circumstances they occur. The answer is “No. They don’t fit our values.”
If you decide to do this, explain to your child the reasons behind your decision. Like the researchers in this area, you’ll need to decide what “counts” as violence, which is not always clear. Does a racecar game where players can push each other off the track count as violence? How about a history-based strategy game involving war but not blood? This would be an interesting conversation to have with your child that could lead to an exploration and clarification of values.
If your child isn’t particularly drawn to this type of entertainment, you won’t get any pushback on a zero-violent-video-games policy. It’s also fairly easy to enforce this with young children. It gets harder in the teen years, when kids have more independence and video games, including violent ones, are often a big part of socializing, particularly for boys. Even if you can’t enforce the policy 100%, because, for example, your child plays games that you think are inappropriate when visiting friends, your child will still play these games far less than if you had them readily available at home.
And, of course, violent video games certainly are not the only or best way for kids to connect. If you decide to skip violent video games in your home, make sure your child does other fun activities that peers enjoy, too, that can form a basis for friendships. These could include sports, music, outdoor activities, imaginative play, building toys, collectibles, or nonviolent video games.
– Let it go
Some parents will decide that they’re not worried about the effects of violent video games. This can also be a legitimate position. If your home and neighborhood are reasonably peaceful, and you have a generally happy, kind, empathic child, who does at least fairly well in school, is able to think critically (i.e., is over age nine or, even better, over age twelve), has other interests, and good friends, then the effects of playing violent video games are likely to be minimal.
In day-to-day life, there are many things that can lead children to have aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior, including getting homework with long division, being asked to clean up their room, and being pestered by a sibling. Kids are also more likely to behave aggressively when they’re tired, hungry, or stressed. It’s not clear whether these other factors have larger or smaller effects on aggression than playing violent video games. As parents, sometimes we try to address the circumstances that trigger bad behavior, and sometimes we just focus on teaching our children to behave appropriately, regardless of the circumstances.
– Find a middle ground
Many parents will try to adopt a policy on violent video games that’s somewhere between all or none. There’s evidence that greater parental monitoring of violent content in children’s overall media exposure is linked to kids being rated by teachers as more helpful and less aggressive behavior, six months later (Gentile et al., 2014).
Douglas Gentile points out that there are various ways parents can monitor children’s video game playing. First, parents can influence the content of video games that their children play. They can avoid games with realistic violence or those labeled “M” for mature content. They can also steer kids toward video games that are fun and exciting but not violent or even ones that involve positive social actions (e.g., Chibi Robo, Lemmings, Super Mario Sunshine). There’s research showing that playing prosocial videogames can increase kind attitudes and behavior (e.g., Gentile et al., 2009; Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2009; Saleem et al., 2012). Common Sense Media (www.CommonSenseMedia.org) is a good source of descriptions and reviews of video games that can help you make an informed decision about a particular game.
Second, parents can limit the amount of time that kids spend playing video games, including violent video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour per day of total screen time for elementary school children and no more than two hours a day for high schoolers. Practically, it’s easier to permit video games only on certain days or during certain hours than to quibble with your child about “I only got to play for 17 minutes!” Keeping electronics out of children’s bedrooms, especially at night, is also a very good idea. Making sure your child has plenty of “real life” activities he or she enjoys is a more indirect but often very effective way to limit time spent on video games.
Finally, parents can also influence the impact of violent video games by playing them with their children and/or by talking about them. Be careful about preaching with older kids and teens, because they tend to tune that out. Try asking questions to help your child think things through, such as:
– What do you think is or isn’t realistic about this game?
– Why do you think this game got the rating it did?
– Why do you think the game developer included that?
– Why do you think this game is so popular?
Just as kids can learn to think critically about advertisements, they can learn to look at video games in a more analytical way.
No matter what policy you decide on regarding violent video games, your child will probably still say or do aggressive things sometimes. It takes lots of real life practice for kids to learn how to manage frustration, understand other people’s perspectives, and resolve conflicts peacefully.