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The Impact of Violent Video Games on Young People: What We Know

Table of Contents

Key Takeaway

The impact of violent video games on young people varies depending on individual personality traits, situational factors, and motivations for playing. High neuroticism, disagreeableness, and low conscientiousness may make an individual more likely to think and act aggressively after playing violent video games. Placing game consoles and computers in common areas of the home, setting time limits, and encouraging participation in other activities can help parents ensure their children are engaging with video games in a healthy and safe way.

As the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto video game series grows among teenagers, concerns about the potential harm of violent video games have arisen. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has identified violent content, blood and gore, strong sexual content, and use of drugs in these games. In 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that 97% of youths aged 12 to 17 played video games, with two-thirds of them playing violent action and adventure games. It is worth noting that boys tend to use violent video games more frequently than girls. In fact, over 50% of video games rated by ESRB contain violence, with over 90% of those rated as appropriate for children aged 10 years or older.

As a result of the widespread use of violent video games, many parents are concerned about the potential impact on their children's mental health. Some organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), believe that exposure to violent media, including video games, can contribute to real-life violent behavior and harm children in other ways. However, some researchers have questioned the validity and applicability of much of the research supporting this view, arguing that most youths are not affected by violent video games.

Despite the differing opinions on the impact of violent video games on children, both sides agree that it is possible for parents to take steps that limit the potential negative effects of video games.

Key takeaways

  • Research on the impact of violent video games often uses measures that do not correlate with real-world violence and some studies only show observational data without proving cause and effect.
  • Despite the increase in video game sales, federal crime statistics indicate a decrease in serious violent crimes among youths since 1996.
  • To protect children from potential harm, parents can limit their children's use of video games and take other common-sense precautions.

AAP on Videogames and Violence

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published a policy statement on media violence, which includes video games. The statement cites studies linking exposure to violence in the media with aggression and violent behavior in youths. While acknowledging that many children's television shows and movies also contain violent scenes, the AAP describes violent video games as particularly harmful due to their interactivity and potential to encourage role-playing. As such, the authors of the policy statement express concern that these games may serve as virtual rehearsals for actual violence.

The AAP policy notes that violent video games are just one of many influences on behavior. However, the authors fear that exposure to aggressive behavior or violence in video games and other media may, over time, desensitize youths by numbing them emotionally. The policy also suggests that exposure to violent media can cause nightmares and sleep problems, impair school performance, and lead to aggressive behavior and bullying.

The AAP's views on violent video games are shared by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Both organizations believe that children learn by observing, mimicking, and adopting behaviors. They express concern that exposure to violent media, including video games, can have negative effects on children's behavior and emotional health.

The Research is Divided

While some researchers still believe that violent video games can be harmful, others have challenged this view in recent years. In a special issue of the Review of General Psychology published in 2010, several researchers argued against the idea that violent video games lead to real-world violence. Dr. Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M International University, noted that many studies rely on measures to assess aggression that do not correlate with real-world violence, and that many studies are observational and do not prove cause and effect. He also pointed to data from federal criminal justice agencies, which show that serious violent crimes among youths have decreased since 1996, even as video game sales have soared.

While there may be some links between playing violent games and some kinds of aggression, it’s not clear how strong these links are, how troubling they are, how long they last, or how well they translate into real-world aggression.

Dr. Cheryl Olson - Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media

Other researchers have challenged the link between violent video game use and school shootings. They argue that most young perpetrators of school shootings had personality traits, such as anger, psychosis, and aggression, that were apparent before the shootings and predisposed them to violence. These factors make it difficult to accept the playing of violent games as an independent risk factor. A report on targeted school violence commissioned by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education found that over half of attackers had an interest in violent media, including books, movies, or video games. However, the report cautioned against using any particular behavior, including interest in violence, to produce a "profile" of a likely shooter.

To better understand the impact of video games on young people, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded research at the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital. While still in the preliminary stages, this research and other studies suggest that a subset of youths may become more aggressive after playing violent video games. However, in most cases, playing violent video games is likely part of normal development, especially in boys, and a legitimate source of fun. Given the individual variability, it may be useful to consider the impact of video games within three broad domains: personality, situation, and motivation.

Experts Weigh in

Research suggests that the impact of violent video games on young people may depend on individual variability and the context in which they are played. Three broad domains to consider when assessing the impact of video games are personality, situation, and motivation.

Regarding personality, two psychologists, Dr. Patrick Markey of Villanova University and Dr. Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University, have identified three personality traits that may make an individual more likely to think and act aggressively after playing violent video games. These traits are high neuroticism, disagreeableness, and low levels of conscientiousness.

Learn More

Read more about the latest mental health research from our experts.

The situation in which children play video games also matters. Dr. Cheryl Olson of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media led a study of over 1,200 students in public schools, which found that certain situations increased exposure to violent video games. For example, locating game consoles and computers in children's bedrooms and allowing older siblings to share games with younger ones led to increased exposure to mature-rated games.

Motivation is another factor to consider. In a three-year study, Dr. Mizuko Ito and a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine interviewed and observed the online behavior of 800 youths. The study found that video game play and other online activities have become so prevalent among young people that they have altered how young people socialize and learn.

While many adults see video games as isolating and antisocial, studies suggest that young people view them differently. For most young respondents, video games are fun, exciting, and a way to counter boredom or spend time with friends. Violent content is not always the main draw, particularly for boys who are motivated by competition and the desire to win. In fact, playing violent video games may be similar to rough-housing play that is a normal part of boys' development. Video games can offer another outlet for competition and establishing a pecking order.

What Parents Can Do

  • Check the ESRB rating to better understand what type of content a video game has.
  • Play video games with children to better understand the content and how children react.
  • Place video consoles and computers in common areas of the home, rather than in children's bedrooms.
  • Set limits on the amount of time youths can play these games. The AAP recommends two hours or less of total screen time per day, including television, computers, and video games.
  • Encourage participation in sports or school activities in which youths can interact with peers in person rather than online.

Remember, video games can be an enjoyable and rewarding activity, but may become hazardous in certain contexts. Parents can best protect their children by remaining engaged with them and providing limits and guidance as necessary.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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