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Violent video games and young people

OCT 2010

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Experts are divided about the potential harm, but agree on some steps parents can take to protect children.

Blood and gore. Intense violence. Strong sexual content. Use of drugs. These are just a few of the phrases that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) uses to describe the content of several games in the Grand Theft Auto series, one of the most popular video game series among teenagers. The Pew Research Center reported in 2008 that 97% of youths ages 12 to 17 played some type of video game, and that two-thirds of them played action and adventure games that tend to contain violent content. (Other research suggests that boys are more likely to use violent video games, and play them more frequently, than girls.) A separate analysis found that more than half of all video games rated by the ESRB contained violence, including more than 90% of those rated as appropriate for children 10 years or older.

Given how common these games are, it is small wonder that mental health clinicians often find themselves fielding questions from parents who are worried about the impact of violent video games on their children.

The view endorsed by organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is that exposure to violent media (including video games) can contribute to real-life violent behavior and harm children in other ways. But other researchers have questioned the validity or applicability of much of the research supporting this view. They argue that most youths are not affected by violent video games. What both sides of this debate agree on is that it is possible for parents to take steps that limit the possible negative effects of video games.

Key points

  • Much of the research on violent video game use relies on measures to assess aggression that don't correlate with real-world violence. Some studies are observational and don't prove cause and effect.

  • Federal crime statistics suggest that serious violent crimes among youths have decreased since 1996, even as video game sales have soared.

  • Parents can protect children from potential harm by limiting use of video games and taking other common-sense precautions.

One view

In its most recent policy statement on media violence, which includes discussion of video games as well as television, movies, and music, the AAP cites studies that link exposure to violence in the media with aggression and violent behavior in youths. The AAP policy describes violent video games as one of many influences on behavior, noting that many children's television shows and movies also contain violent scenes. But the authors believe that video games are particularly harmful because they are interactive and encourage role-playing. As such, the authors fear that these games may serve as virtual rehearsals for actual violence.

Both the AAP and AACAP reason that children learn by observing, mimicking, and adopting behaviors — a basic principle of social learning theory. These organizations express concern that exposure to aggressive behavior or violence in video games and other media may, over time, desensitize youths by numbing them emotionally, cause nightmares and sleep problems, impair school performance, and lead to aggressive behavior and bullying.

A 2001 report of the U.S. Surgeon General on the topic of youth violence made a similar judgment. Some meta-analyses of the literature — reviewing psychological research studies and large observational studies — have found an association between violent video games and increased aggressive thinking and behavior in youths. And some casual observers go further, assuming that tragic school shootings prove a link between such games and real-world aggression.

Video game use among American teens

graph showing percentages of video game use among American teenagers

Source: PEW Internet & American Life Project, September 2008.

A more nuanced view

In recent years, however, other researchers have challenged the popular view that violent video games are harmful. Several of them contributed papers to a special issue of the Review of General Psychology, published in June 2010 by the American Psychological Association.

In one paper, Dr. Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M International University, argued that many studies on the issue of media violence rely on measures to assess aggression that don't correlate with real-world violence — and even more important, many are observational approaches that don't prove cause and effect. He also cited data from federal criminal justice agencies showing that serious violent crimes among youths have decreased since 1996, even as video game sales have soared.

Other researchers have challenged the association between violent video game use and school shootings, noting that most of the young perpetrators had personality traits, such as anger, psychosis, and aggression, that were apparent before the shootings and predisposed them to violence. These factors make it more difficult to accept the playing of violent games as an independent risk factor. A comprehensive report of targeted school violence commissioned by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education concluded that more than half of attackers demonstrated interest in violent media, including books, movies, or video games. However, the report cautioned that no particular behavior, including interest in violence, could be used to produce a "profile" of a likely shooter.

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

Personality. Two psychologists, Dr. Patrick Markey of Villanova University and Dr. Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University, have presented evidence that some children may become more aggressive as a result of watching and playing violent video games, but that most are not affected. After reviewing the research, they concluded that the combination of three personality traits might be most likely to make an individual act and think aggressively after playing a violent video game. The three traits they identified were high neuroticism (prone to anger and depression, highly emotional, and easily upset), disagreeableness (cold, indifferent to other people), and low levels of conscientiousness (prone to acting without thinking, failing to deliver on promises, breaking rules).

Situation. Dr. Cheryl Olson, cofounder of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media, led a study of 1,254 students in public schools (most were ages 12 to 14) in South Carolina and Pennsylvania. The researchers found that certain situations increased exposure to violent video games — such as locating game consoles and computers in children's bedrooms, and allowing older siblings to share games with younger ones. In this study, children who played video games often with older siblings were twice as likely as other children to play mature-rated games (considered suitable for ages 17 and older).

Motivation. In a three-year study, a team led by Dr. Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, both interviewed and observed the online behavior of 800 youths. The researchers concluded that video game play and other online activities have become so ubiquitous among young people that they have altered how young people socialize and learn.

Although adults tend to view video games as isolating and antisocial, other studies found that most young respondents described the games as fun, exciting, something to counter boredom, and something to do with friends. For many youths, violent content is not the main draw. Boys in particular are motivated to play video games in order to compete and win. Seen in this context, use of violent video games may be similar to the type of rough-housing play that boys engage in as part of normal development. Video games offer one more outlet for the competition for status or to establish a pecking order.

What parents can do

Parents can protect their children from potential harm from video games by following a few commonsense strategies — particularly if they are concerned that their children might be vulnerable to the effects of violent content. These simple precautions may help:

  • 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.

Video games share much in common with other pursuits that are enjoyable and rewarding, 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.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Children and Video Games: Playing with Violence (Facts for Families, updated Aug. 2006).

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Policy Statement — Media Violence," Pediatrics (Nov. 2009): Vol. 124, No. 5, pp. 1495–503.

Anderson CA, et al. "Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review," Psychological Bulletin (March 2010): Vol. 136, No. 2, pp. 151–73.

Ferguson CJ. "Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good?" Review of General Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 68–81.

Ito M, et al. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2008).

Lenhart A, et al. Teens, Video Games, and Civics (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008).

Markey PM, et al. "Vulnerability to Violent Video Games: A Review and Integration of Personality Research," Review of General Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 82–91.

Olson CK. "Children's Motivations for Video Game Play in the Context of Normal Development," Review of General Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 180–87.

Olson CK, et al. "Factors Correlated with Violent Video Game Use by Adolescent Boys and Girls," Journal of Adolescent Health (July 2007): Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 77–83.

For more references, please see www.health.harvard.edu/mentalextra.