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Violent video games can set off aggression in kids

Harold Mandel's picture
A kid playing video games online

There has been a great deal of concern among parents, educators and law enforcement officials among others that violent video games may set off aggressive behavior in kids. Yet, in spite of these concerns violent video games have been flooding the market with young kids often being able to slaughter scores of fictional video characters, who often appear real to life, in a flash with rapid fire machine guns and bombs.

Although several studies have demonstrated that there is an effect of violent video game play on later aggressive behavior, little has been known about the psychological mediators and moderators of such an effect, reported JAMA Pediatrics on March 24, 2014. Researchers decided to determine whether cognitive and/or emotional variables can mediate the effect of violent video game play on aggression and whether or not this effect is moderated by age, sex, previous aggressiveness, or parental monitoring. A total of 3034 children and adolescents from 6 primary and 6 secondary schools in Singapore were included in this study.

It was determined that the effects of violent video game play are mediated primarily by aggressive cognitions. Sex, prior aggressiveness, or parental monitoring did not appear to moderate this effect. The effect was only slightly moderated by age, with younger children experiencing a larger increase in initial aggressive cognition associated with initial violent game play at the beginning of the study than older children. In view of the fact that greater than 90 percent of youths play video games, an understanding of the psychological mechanisms by which they can influence behaviors is vital for parents and pediatricians and for designing interventions which may enhance or mitigate the effects.

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It appears that children learn aggressive ways of thinking and behaving from violent video games, reports Iowa State University in a review of this research. According to a new study by Iowa State University researchers, kids who repeatedly play violent video games are learning thought patterns which will stay with them and influence their behaviors as they grow older. Douglas Gentile, who is an associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study which has been published in JAMA Pediatrics, has said this is really no different than learning math or how to play the piano.

Gentile has said, “If you practice over and over, you have that knowledge in your head. The fact that you haven’t played the piano in years doesn’t mean you can’t still sit down and play something. It’s the same with violent games – you practice being vigilant for enemies, practice thinking that it’s acceptable to respond aggressively to provocation, and practice becoming desensitized to the consequences of violence.” These thoughts by Gentile are rational and troubling. It appears awfully dangerous to have our kids desensitized to the consequences of violence.

The researchers say they have observed that over time kids begin to think more aggressively from playing violent video games. Than when they are provoked at home, school or in other situations, kids will react much as they do when they are playing a violent video game. Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology and lead co-author of the study, has said, “Violent video games model physical aggression.” Anderson goes on to explain that practicing aggressive thinking in these games improves the ability of the players to think aggressively. The habitual aggressive thinking which develops increases their aggressiveness in real life.

In an earlier cross-cultural study, these researchers found that prosocial media, which includes video games, movies or TV shows which portray helpful, caring and cooperative behaviors, have a positive influence on behavior regardless of culture. Together what these studies show is that the content of the video games which youth play, whether prosocial or antisocial, determines their impact on behavior in the real world.

Although it certainly appears to be a common sense notion that violent video games can set off violent behavior in kids, this research to back up that premise is significant. The same considerations are true for the positive influence of prosocial video games. These findings should encourage rational censorship of video games which kids are exposed to with a goal of promoting positive instead of negative behavior with video games.