For a detailed interview on multiple effects of video games (including "addiction"
and violent games), see this interview published by Negative Gamer
Are there important effects of children watching media violence?
The short answer is yes. A slightly longer answer is that there are multiple effects
of consuming media violence that have been documented scientifically. There are many
ways of summarizing the multiple effects, but one is that there are four major effects
of media violence exposure. These are:
The aggressor effect: Watching a lot of entertainment violence tends to predict increased
aggressive thoughts, increased aggressive feelings, and increased aggressive behaviors
The victim effect: Watching a lot of entertainment violence tends to predict increased
fearfulness, increased beliefs about the likelihood that violence might occur, and
increased self-protective behaviors.
The bystander effect: Watching a lot of entertainment violence predicts increased
desensitization, both to other media violence and also to aggression in the real
The appetite effect: Simply put, the more you watch, the more you want to watch.
The scientific issue is not whether there are effects, but which of these effects
are most likely to occur given a specific type of media content, the characteristics
of the viewer, and the context of the viewing. It is also important to consider whether
you are most interested in short-term or long-term effects.
For a longer, more detailed answer, I recommend the following books:
Potter, W. J. (1999). On media violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
What are the strongest effects of violent video games on children?
Meta-analyses (a study that gathers all the other studies together to look at the
common patterns across all of the studies) have found that there are at least five
effects of violent video game play: Increased aggressive thoughts, increased aggressive
feelings, increased physiological arousal, increased aggressive behavior, and decreased
positive prosocial behavior.
Yes, all media also have multiple positive effects, and I am just as interested in
studying those types of effects. For example, one study I was involved with showed
that laparoscopic surgeons who played video games were much better at advanced surgical
skills. This is a very interesting finding, because these surgeons were playing
the same commercial games that you and I play -- they weren't playing surgical simulators. So
how can we explain this effect, as it doesn't seem to be directly related to the
content of the games they played?
My current thinking is that there are at least five dimensions on which video games
have effects: Amount, Content, Structure, Context, and Mechanics. For more details,
see the issues page or the following articles.
Personally, I'm pretty old school, and miss Asteroids. I still do, however, play
a MUD (Multiple User Domain) called Midian, which is a precursor to today's MMOs
(Massively Multiplayer Online games). Of more modern games, I like Super Monkey Ball,Wii
Fit, and my current favorite is Beatles Rock Band. For kids, my current favorite
games are Animal Crossing and Endless Ocean: Blue World.
What role should parents play?
Parents are in an extremely powerful position, but most don't seem to use it as well
as they could. Research demonstrates that putting limits on the amount and content of
children's media (including all screen media - TV, DVDs, movies, video games, and
non-school computer use) is a powerful protective factor for children. How much
is too much? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens at all for
children up to age 3, up to one hour a day total screen time (add up all the different
screens) for young children, and up to two hours a day for secondary school children. What
types of content? I recommend seeking media that do not include characters intentionally
harming each other, whether that is with words, actions, or violence. It would be
even better if the shows, movies, or games showed people helping each other in non-violent
ways (because studies also show that children who view prosocial media tend to become
more positive and prosocial over time), or included educational or problem-solving
content (because we learn from whatever we experience).
Research with television also demonstrates, however, that when parents sit and watch
with their children and talk to them about what they see and hear, it enhances the
positive effects and mitigates the negative effects. BUT, if parents sit and watch
with their children but do not discuss it, it enhances the negative effects! The
crucial thing, therefore, is to learn to challenge and discuss what is being seen,
so that children do not learn to accept what is seen as reasonable scripts for their
own behaviors, but learn to understand them in a way that is consistent with their
family's values, whatever they may be.
I am a researcher, not a legislator. Governments in many countries and at many levels
have, however, become involved in trying to help parents. My personal opinion is
that it's unclear what role (if any) the government should play. The US government
definitely should not attempt to dictate what types of games may or may not be created,
and in fact, it never has. There could be other roles that the government could play
profitably, such as by improving the ratings on media products, or by providing support
for educational efforts to help parents understand the effects media have on children
and why they should use the ratings, but these types of issues have yet to be explored.
I don't think so. Watch a 4-year-old's face when he's seeing something violent on
TV - he's not usually enjoying it. But we tell him, "It's ok, it's not real...it's
only TV" and that actually tells him he's supposed to sit there and learn to like
it. Instead, we as parents should reinforce his correct natural response, and say
"You're right, that is yucky. Let's turn it off."
Do video games have a stronger effect on children than media like television because
of its interactive nature?
Theoretically that is what we would expect. However, there is only a little scientific
evidence for it at this time. I therefore think that this is still an open question
that needs additional study.
Computer and video games have been played by most children in countries like the
United States for the last 30 years, yet youth crime rates in that time have fallen. Doesn't
this suggest that games have little effect on behavior?
No, it suggests that societal-level violence is a complex phenomenon that is affected
by many things, such as the economy, laws, gun availability, the number of police,
prison sentences, etc. No media effects researcher has ever said that media violence
will cause severe violent behavior such as school shootings. Those are highly extreme
behaviors that require several risk factors to converge, of which media violence
exposure is only one. Instead, the effects of media violence exposure are more subtle,
such as increasing aggressive thoughts and feelings, so that when someone does something
that annoys you, you become more willing to say something cruel in response, or perhaps
even to hit them. Although these effects are not severe enough to show up in crime
statistics, they are still of great importance. Children who begin to become more
aggressive toward their peers also suffer from a wide range of other poor outcomes,
such as poorer school performance, increased peer rejection, etc.
It is important to remember that media effects happen at an individual, internal
psychological level, and therefore to simply compare them to population-level crime
statistics is not an appropriate scientific comparison.
For a discussion of how to consider the links between individual and population effects,
Some people are talking about "video game addiction" or "computer addiction." Is
there such a thing?
I began studying this in 1999, largely because it seemed that people were misusing
these terms and I wanted to see if there was any validity to the idea of video game
"addiction." I worried that all it meant for most people is, "my child spends a
lot of time playing and I don't understand why." To be an addiction, it has to mean
more than you do it a lot. It has to mean that you do it so much or in such a way
that it begins to damage your life -- it has to damage your psychological functioning,
your occupational functioning, your social functioning, your family functioning,
your school functioning, etc.
Using the definition of pathological gambling as a guide, when we study gamers, there
do indeed appear to be some children who reach a level that could be considered pathological. Unfortunately,
the percentage of gamers who reach this level is not small. My best current estimate
is about 8.5% of gamers are damaging their functioning to such an extent that they
probably should seek help.
What we know, however, is vastly overshadowed by what we don't know yet. We don't
know who is most at risk, how long it remains a problem, whether it is a primary
or secondary problem, whether it requires professional help or goes away on its own,
or what types of help would be most beneficial. Until more of these questions are
answered, pathological computer and video game use will not likely be recognized
as a true disorder. My best guess is that it will be, but not for several years.
Are there any issues about media that are specific to girls?
There are several. Many studies have found that the media tend to portray women in
unrealistic ways with a strong emphasis on appearance. Unfortunately these portrayals
affect our girls, causing many to overvalue their outsides. Additional concerns include
the sexualization of girls, consumerism, and relational aggression. Although there
are not many studies yet, those that exist suggest that girls learn aggression from
the media just as boys do. Girls, however, tend not to be physically aggressive,
but relationally aggressive - where they use their relationships with others to harm.
This can be done by ignoring others, threatening not to be friends, spreading rumors,
social exclusion, etc. Patterns of this behavior may begin in the preschool years,
and seems to be partially related to media exposure, including exposure to physically
violent media. Although people have believed (and some early studies suggested) that
violent media might affect boys more than girls, I cannot find that in my studies. Both
boys and girls seem to be affected about the same amount, but what the effects look
like can be different.
Is the issue of pathological computer, Internet, and video game use really like other addictions? How many kids are having real problems? What are the symptoms, and how can we diagnose it? What makes games so attractive, and what can we do about it?