Does playing violent video games foster aggressive behavior?

For over 50 years, psychologists have studied the influence of TV and movie violence, and violent video games on the behavior of young people. The issue of TV violence came up in the 1960s and was geared mainly to children viewers. The question was, “Are children likely to imitate the violence they see on TV?”

After years of research two factors emerged as definitely playing a role: The degree to which children see depictions of violence on TV as real — if they see TV as real, they are more likely to imitate the violence — and the degree to which children identify with a violent TV character — if they admire and want to be like an aggressive character, they likely to imitate that aggression. These conclusions make sense, but they beg the questions: “What makes kids more likely to see TV as real, and more likely to identify with a violent character on TV?”

Not surprisingly, the research shows the answer appears to depend on kids’ home lives. Children who imitate violence on TV have parents who are mostly cold, disengaged, and rejecting. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Danny? Go watch TV or something.” Doesn’t it make sense that children who have a non-supportive, frustrating, and anxiety-laden home life filled with criticism might turn to the more reassuring world of TV, especially content that depicts violence as a way to achieve goals?

The point is, we’re not going to take random children, place them in front of a TV to watch violent shows, and turn them into aggressive bullies or murderers. There must be other factors in the children’s lives that “fit in” with the TV violence – factors that make them vulnerable to accepting an aggressive world, and believing that aggression is the best way to resolve conflicts.

How about violent video games? Extensive research reveals that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, thoughts, and emotions in children and young adults. Although causation has not been firmly established, high levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency, fighting at school, assaults, and robberies. A 2018 review of 24 studies from countries including the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan found that kids who played violent games — such as “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty” and “Manhunt” — were more likely to get in trouble at school for fighting.

A leading researcher, Jay Hull, says, “Based on our findings, we feel it is clear that violent video game play is associated with subsequent increases in physical aggression. A lot of people ask, do these games really cause these kids to behave aggressively? I would say that is one possibility. The other possibility is that it’s a really bad sign. If your kids are playing these games, either these games are having a warping effect on right and wrong, or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games. Either way you should be concerned about it.”

If we link this comment to the research on TV violence showing the influence of parents on children’s suggestibility, we might do well to focus on Hull’s statement, “…or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games.” Ask yourself, “If a young person has a warped sense of right and wrong, who is their likely teacher?” By the same token, if a young person believes that violent video games portray real options for dealing with frustrations and conflict, who is falling short in helping these kids to discriminate between what is fantasy and what is reality?

Communication, love, trust, confidence, security, openness, honesty. When conditions like these exist between parent and child, negative temptations of the internet, TV, video games, peers, predator adults, and other nefarious elements of society can be diminished. When young people are secure in their family identity, they have less need to turn to these elements – and that includes hate groups, cults, and others dedicated to indoctrination of the young, malleable mind for perverse purposes.

When children and teens know they are loved and valued, they are better able to exercise critical thinking about TV and game depictions, and internet messages; they are better able to evaluate the reliability and validity of such messages; they are better able to discern if the message is geared to indoctrination or to education. They are also better prepared emotionally to handle hateful, bullying messages from peers, and more likely to reach out to trusted adults for support and coping strategies to deal with such messages.

I remember a class several years ago when we were reviewing the research and discussing this issue. I asked, “How many of you play really violent video games where you shoot people?” About 80% of the guys raised a hand (none of the women did). “OK, how many of you go around shooting people?” No hands went up. “How come,” I asked, “given that these games can have such an influence on players?”

A student started laughing and said, “Because they’re games, entertainment! It’s not real! If you think the games are real, you’re crazy!”

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