Gene Beresin, MD, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the MGH Center for Mental Health and Media, and Steve Schlozman, MD, examine research that shows no causal relationship between violent games and violent behavior. They also offer advice for parents on TV watching and video game playing.

Research Shows Violent Media Do Not Cause Violent Behavior

Research Findings and Tips for Parents

26/Dec/2012

On December 21 the National Rifle Association (NRA) blamed the media for promoting violent video games and movies and then cited these phenomena as the primary causes of mass violence. The assertion that violent video games and movies cause violent behavior has not been demonstrated by scientific research. Youth who have aggressive traits and are stressed are more prone to delinquent and bullying behavior, and are also drawn to these games, but their behavior in real life is not predicted by playing the games. All youth are protected from violence in the world by close, supportive relationships with parents and peers. There are a small percentage of youth, perhaps 5% who are at risk of engaging in violent behavior.

There has been extensive research and writing on the impact of violent movies and videos on behavior in kids. But research is clearly lacking on a direct causal relationship between violent video games and youth violence. Analyses of school shooting incidents from the U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime do not support a link between violent games and real world attacks.

In 2004, a team of Mass General researchers led by Dr. Cheryl Olson studied 1,254 7th and 8th graders and 500 parents in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, looking at what kids were playing, how much time they played, and the possible relationship to delinquent behavior. They found that many of these kids played violent games; two-thirds of 14 year-old boys played at least one violent game often versus a quarter of the girls surveyed. The researchers also found that kids played games to cope with their emotions, to enjoy challenging situations, to keep up with peers playing similar games, to create their own worlds, and to relieve stress.

There were correlations between playing violent games and self-reported physical fights and delinquent behavior, particularly with greater amounts of time played. However, this was only true in a small percentage of children who already exhibited aggressive traits and a high stress level. They found that the traits of aggression and stress were predictive of delinquent behavior and bullying and not the playing of violent video games themselves.  Researchers also found that parent involvement and parent/peer support seemed to be protective of these negative behaviors.

However, there seems to be a relationship between about five to six percent of kids who get into trouble, sometimes violent, and the amount of time playing violent games. There were no causal relationships found between violent games and violent behavior, just correlations, and this could mean there are other things in life that may be involved.

Problems also exist in the research about violent movies. Most of the science is not very good. However, in the few sound studies, there was also an apparent relationship between the time watching violent TV or movies and aggressive acts in real life – but only for a small percentage of kids and young adults. There seems to be a greater effect on younger children who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.  It also appears that when violence is coupled with an attractive movie star and combined with sexuality, the impact appears to be stronger.

The bottom line is that for violent movies and video games, we just do not know the relationship between viewing or playing and aggression in the real world. Research to date does not inform us. But we should be concerned and wary of risks.

Advice for Parents

Here are some tips for parents when they consider their kids video game playing and movie watching:

  • Know your kids! If you child is impulsive, aggressive or excessively angry, it may not be wise to allow violent games. If their behavior tends to soften after playing, it may be helping in some manner. By the same token, a fearful, anxious child should refrain from playing games or seeing movies that are filled with horror.  Never make your children watch something that they’re afraid to watch.
  • Sound and supportive relationships with family and peers appear to be protective against violent behavior. Remember that well-adjusted teens are less likely to be at risk.
  • Know what your kids are playing and watching. Play the game with your kid to see what the game delivers in terms of content. Watch TV and movies with them and watch for their reaction. For school-age kids and teenagers, use this as an opportunity to talk with them about their reactions to what they see and the impact on them. It is always good to start such discussions early in a child’s life, and keep this an ongoing open dialogue.
  • Keep an eye on what is developmentally appropriate. Younger kids (or immature children at any age), who cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, should not be allowed to watch violent movies, cartoons, or play violent videogames.
  • Set guidelines about the amount of time kids can play, and be sure that other activities, such as playing with friends, time with family, etc., provide a good balance.
  • Review information about the ratings and content of games at the following sites: Commonsense Media, The Coalition for Quality Children’s Media, GetNetWise  

For more information, click here to read Dr. Gene Beresin’s post in Psychology Today.