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Do Violent Games Lead to Aggressive Behaviour? Not Really, Researchers Say

Children Playing Video GamesIn a study released lin April 2008, researchers try to straighten the facts on the impact violent video games have on youth. Debunking several myths along the way the study, titled Grand Theft Childhood, reveals that playing violent video games does not lead children to become more aggressive.

Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, initiated their research in 2004. Thanks to the $1.5 million in funding provided the U.S. Department of Justice, the study looked at the effects of video games on young teenagers. Unlike previous research, they studied real children and families in real situations. Read More...

“Our findings are nuanced,” said Dr. Lawrence Kutner, in a Q&A session with the Globe and Mail. “What's clear, however, is that the melodramatic claims by some pundits and politicians about violent video games turning typical children and teenagers into violent or antisocial people in the real world simply don't hold water. We need to get beyond those simplistic statements.”

Grand Theft Childhood sheds light on certain misconceptions adults have about youth who play violent video games. First, the reasons which draw kids to these games are often not what the public perceive.

“Our research found that the preteens and young teenagers we surveyed weren't interested in violent games per se,” said Kutner. “They were attracted to games because they had complex plots, interesting characters and engaging environments. It just so happens that many of the games that meet those criteria also include violence. But they did not like to play purely violent games like Postal or Manhunt because they found them boring.”

Teenagers are also often aware of the fantastic dimension of video game violence, the study found. However, the researchers emphasize that younger children are likely to miss the point.

“One of the issues with GTA is that much of the content is satire, which is something that young teenagers have difficulty picking up, especially if they don't have the pop culture references,” indicated Kutner. “Our research found that the 7th and 8th graders we surveyed were acutely aware of the difference between fantasy and reality, and acted accordingly.”

“One of the concerns about violent games is that a child under age 11 or 12, roughly, may not have the context or brain development to know what needs to be left in the game world vs. the real world”, said Dr. Cheryl K. Olson. “They may pick up bad or insulting language, for example, copy it without being clear on what it means, and get in trouble.”

Another one of the study’s surprising findings is the benefits some youth can get from playing games with a violent tone. While some parents are concerned to see their child virtually playing with guns and bombs, they should be encouraged to know their kids can actually learn positive real-world behaviours through these in-game acts.

“The kids we interviewed in focus groups told us that one of the things they learned from playing M-rated violent games was that engaging in criminal activity has bad consequences. They said that they would never engage in these behaviours in the real world because of both what they believed in and the consequences of these actions.”

Finally, the most important conclusion from this study is that it is important to consider a child’s maturity and age before purchasing a game. Some kids will need help understanding certain themes, and others may have no problem with them.

“One of the simplest things that parents can do is not to let their children have a game console or computer in their bedrooms”, encourages Kutner. “Our research found that those kids who had game consoles and/or computers in their bedrooms played more M-rated games and played more hours per week. It's a much better idea to keep that equipment in a shared, public area of the home.

“Note that our research focused on basically healthy children attending public schools. If your child has developmental delays, a very aggressive temperament, emotional issues or difficulty perceiving context (such as sarcasm), games may affect them differently,” reminded Olson.

“If your child is playing games alone for hours, this could be a sign of problems such as depression — some children ‘self-medicate’ with games to forget their troubles. If your child's time with games is out of balance with the rest of his/her life, that's a concern. For most young teens, moderate amount of game play, and occasionally playing violent games, is a normal part of childhood today,” Olson concluded.

A few of the study’s myths and realities:


MYTH: The growth in violent video game sales is linked to the growth in youth violence — especially school violence — throughout the country.

FACT: Video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions. Violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since. School violence has also gone down. Between 1994 and 2001, arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaults fell 44 percent, resulting in the lowest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes since 1983. Murder arrests, which reached a high of 3,800 in 1993, plummeted to 1400 by 2001.

MYTH: Girls don’t play violent video games like Grand Theft Auto.

FACT: Our survey of more than 1200 middle school students found that 29 percent of girls who played video games listed at least one M-rated game among the games they’d “played a lot” during the previous six months. One in five specifically listed a Grand Theft Auto game. In fact, among these 12- to 14-year-old girls, the Grand Theft Auto series was second only to The Sims in popularity.

MYTH: In August 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a resolution on violence in video games and interactive media, stating that “perpetrators go unpunished in 73 percent of all violent scenes, and therefore teach that violence is an effective way of resolving conflict.”

FACT: The allegation that “perpetrators go unpunished in 73 percent of all violent scenes” is based on research from the mid-1990s that looked at selected television programs, not video games.

MYTH: School shooters fit a profile that includes a fascination with violent media, especially violent video games.

FACT: The U. S. Secret Service intensely studied each of the 37 non-gang and non-drug-related school shootings and stabbings that were considered “targeted attacks” that took place nationally from 1974 through 2000. (Note how few premeditated school shootings there actually were during that 27-year time period, compared with the public perception of those shootings as relatively common events!) The incidents studied included the most notorious school shootings, such as Columbine, Santee and Paducah, in which the young perpetrators had been linked in the press to violent video games. The Secret Service found that that there was no accurate profile. Only 1 in 8 school shooters showed any interest in violent video games; only 1 in 4 liked violent movies.