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 world
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.
For details, I recommend:
Anderson, C. A. & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.
But can’t video games also have positive effects?
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.
For more details, I recommend:
Gentile, D. A. & Stone, W. (2005). Violent video game effects on children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatrica, 57, 337-358
Khoo, A., & Gentile, D. A. (2007). Problem based learning in the world of games. In O. S. Tan and D. Hung (Eds.), Problem-based Learning and e-Learning Breakthroughs (pp. 97-129). Singapore: Thomson
What is your favorite video game?
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, my 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.
For more details, I recommend several of Erica Weintraub Austin‘s studies
What role should government play?
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.
For more details, I recommend:
Gentile, D. A., Saleem, M., & Anderson, C. A. (2007). Public policy and the effects of media violence on children. Social Issues and Policy Review, 1, 15-61.
Gentile, D. A., Humphrey, J. & Walsh, D. A. (2005). Media ratings for movies, music, video games, & television: A review of the research and recommendations for improvements. Adolescent Medicine Clinics, 16, 427-446.
Are children drawn to violent content?
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, see:
Gentile, D. A. & Sesma, A. (2003). Developmental approaches to understanding media effects on individuals. In D. A. Gentile (Ed.), Media violence and children, (pp. 19-38). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing.
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.
See my more detailed discussion under Issues
For additional details, see:
Gentile, D. A. (2009). Pathological video game use among youth 8 to 18: A national study. Psychological Science, 20, 594-602.
Gentile, D. A. , Choo, H., Liau, A., Sim, T., Li, D., Fung, D., & Khoo, A. (2011). Pathological video game use among youths: A two-year longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127, e319-329.
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.
For additional details, see:
Your question? Email me, and I’ll post answers to the most common questions here
Email contact info: dgentile (at) iastate.edu