Addiction to violent video games has been blamed for some of the most violent crimes and ‘moral immaturity’ that is the scourge of modern society.
Anders Breivik, responsible for the cold-blooded murder of 77 of his fellow Norwegians, is just one of many examples of people who turned to violence supposedly as a result, at least in part, of addiction to video nasties. In fact long hours spent alone playing violent games such as World of Warcraft (or whatever it’s called) Call of Duty (also a useful recruiting tool for the U.S. Military) and Grand Theft Auto, have been cited as factors in many of the high school shootings that blight America on a depressingly regular basis.
Call of Duty for example, allows players to take on the role of a bloodthirsty soldier in a number of violent scenarios – arming themselves with an arsenal of weapons including rifles, pistols and grenades. Grand Theft Auto promotes gun violence, revenge killings and prostitution.
Certainly, there are other factors that trigger these deadly acts; Breivik’s actions were also motivated by his own extreme right wing politics and dysfunctional childhood; killers who went on their murderous rampages in the United States were nearly all loners who had become withdrawn and set out to wreak revenge on a teacher or those of their own peer group who had rejected them. One cannot ignore the fact that their actions were helped by the gun culture which exists in America. Nonetheless, the offenders have two things in common. The first is that they are all male, and the second is that all habitually played violent video games.
However, researchers have discovered that it is not the violence portrayed in the game that’s the real problem, but rather the amount of time spent playing the game that damages young minds. In other words, it’s the exposure not the content. This makes perfect sense as it is well known that the more you practice an activity, the more grey matter becomes allocated to that activity. Practice makes perfect!
This rule explains why musicians, athletes, artisans and a host of other professionals become adept in their chosen field. It follows that people exposed to violence in the long term will become inured to it and if all they do with their spare time, as in the case of Breivik, is play shoot ’em up video games hour after hour, day after day, then it stands to reason this is going to have a negative effect on their thought processes.
A study carried out by the University of Oxford examined the effects of different types of games and the time spent playing them on children’s social and academic behaviour. They found that it was the time spent playing the games that could be linked with problem behaviour and that this was the significant factor rather than the types of games played.
Researchers found that children who play video games for more than three hours a day were more likely to be hyperactive, involved in fights and be disinterested in school. They were unable to establish a link between violent games and real-life aggression or poor academic performance.
The study, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that low levels of play, less than an hour a day, might actually benefit behaviour.
The lead author, Dr Andy Przybylski, from the university’s Oxford Internet Institute, says “We can see links between some types of games and children’s behaviour, as well as time spent playing. However, we cannot say that game play causes good or bad behaviour. We also know that the risks attached to game playing are small. A range of other factors in a child’s life will influence their behaviour more as this research suggests that playing electronic games may be a statistically significant but a minor factor in how children progress academically or in their emotional wellbeing.”
Parents might assume that strategy and puzzle games may give their child an edge in the classroom, but the experts found that the sociability and grades of children who played these ‘wholesome’ games were no higher than those of their non-playing peers. The same can be said for the ‘brain training’ devices now popular with some adult self-improvement junkies.
The study found that no game features typically encountered by children could be linked to negative behaviour. On the contrary, the researchers found that there were some behavioural benefits. For example, children who played video games with a cooperative and competitive element had significantly fewer emotional problems or problems with peers, while children who chose to play solitary games were found to do well academically and displayed fewer emotional problems. They were also unlikely to be involved in fights.
The researchers relied on teachers’ assessments of behaviour of individual pupils at a school in the southeast of England. The teachers reported whether the 200 pupils in the study group were helpful, or whether they were rowdy and likely to fight as well as commenting on their academic performance. (To ensure accuracy the pupils involved in the study were numbered so their personal identities were not revealed to the researchers.)
The assessments were matched with the responses to a questionnaire that asked each of the 12 and 13-year-old pupils in the study how long they played games each day and the type of games they preferred. The pupils were given a choice between solo, offline competitive team games, online cooperative and competitive games, combat and violence, puzzles and strategy, and games to do with sport and racing.
The results of the study seem to bolster recommendations from the American Academy of Paediatrics, that parents should simply keep an eye on how much time their children are spending playing video games.
Co-author Allison Mishkin says that “These results highlight that playing video games may just be another style of play that children engage with in the digital age, with the benefits felt from the act of playing rather than the medium itself being the significant factor.”
In the meantime, and with typical knee-jerk reaction, it has been reported that parents are in danger of being reported to the police by their children’s head teachers if they allow them to play video games for over 18s. A letter sent by a group of schools in the Nantwich Education Partnership in Cheshire, UK raised concerns about the ‘levels of violence and sexual content’ young people are being exposed to by playing games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, which are renowned for their violent characters and have an 18 classification.
The letter warns that if teachers are made aware their pupils have been playing these video games they will contact police and social services. It said allowing children to play these type of games on Xboxes and Playstations is deemed ‘neglectful.’ It comes amid fears children could be left more vulnerable to grooming and abuse by being exposed to early sexualised behaviour as well as extreme brutality, often seen in video games in the upper age classifications.
The letter says “Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Dogs of War and other similar games, are all inappropriate for children and they should not have access to them. Nor should they have Facebook accounts or interact on sites or media or messaging sites like WhatsApp that are not designed for their age.“
The letter also warns “If your child is allowed to have inappropriate access to any game or associated product that is designated 18+ we are advised to contact the Police and Children’s Social Care as it is neglectful.“
So watch out if you live in Nantwich! The social workers may well do more harm to your children than the video game they’re playing. Just make sure they don’t spend all day on it.
As far as very young children are concerned, watching on-screen violence is just as damaging as witnessing it in real-life. We already know that children who are exposed to domestic violence grow up thinking that behaviour is normal and in most cases, indulge in it themselves when they become adults, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
But even watching fictional violence on TV or online can lead to more aggressive behaviour in children because the very young are unable to distinguish between real violence, as in news footage, and ‘dramatic’ violence portrayed in soaps, films and video games etc. Even the portrayal of anger by actors on screen can, and usually does, affect children of all ages.
Violent video games are now more realistic than ever – even more so than the graphic footage of horrific attacks from around the world now shown on our nightly news bulletins and which are also available uncensored online.
The American Academy of Paediatrics has recommended that all children under six should be shielded from on-screen violence because they cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. This has to be a job for parents.
The problem is that in many video games, the player is rewarded with points for shooting other humans! And yes, there really is something sick about a society that considers this a harmless and amusing pastime.
Dr Dimitri Christakis, director of the Centre for Child Health, Behaviour and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute claims that screen violence, particularly when it is real, but even if it’s virtual, is traumatic for children regardless of their age.
Children exposed to both real and virtual violence are more prone to having nightmares, increased anxiety and other types of sleep disturbance if they are witness to violence, so isn’t it about time we started listening to and acting on the advice of the experts?
Of course, it is nigh on impossible to completely shield youngsters from the harsh reality of news of terrorist attacks and real wars, but children need reassurance after such events, This again, is a job for the parents – and good parenting has to include being aware of sudden changes in their children’s behaviour, such as unexplained aggression. Parents can do a lot to reassure their children that the world is actually full of good people and point them toward more positive stories.
There are literally hundreds of studies carried out with the participation of thousands of children that demonstrate a link between ‘virtual violence’ and real-world aggression.
Conversely, there are benefits for children when they consume non-violent media with more positive themes. A study carried out as recently as 2013 showed positive social and educational screen time enhanced social and emotional behaviour in children. It’s up to parents to encourage more of it.