Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett
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Yesterday in response to the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, President Trump stated, “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.” In response, #videogamesarenottoblame started trending on social media. Talk show hosts came out in force stating that there are no research studies linking video games to mass shootings and youth in other countries play video games, yet they do not have mass shootings like America. Consistent with their argument, as video game playing has gone up, juvenile delinquency has gone down. Even Trump’s own 2018 school safety commission produced recommendations that do not support yesterday’s statement. But as founder of GetKidsInternetSafe, I’m behind the President on this one that the on-demand violent entertainment that proliferates American culture deserves serious discussion. Of course, video games are not the sole cause of hate crimes, nor is the research clean about video games causing violence. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a contributing factor (among many) to making troubled people vulnerable to radicalization online.

In the wake of 31 additional innocent lives lost to senseless gun violence at the hands of extremists, we can all agree that we have reached a crisis point in the United States. The horrific violence of recent hate crimes demand that our leaders act with moral clarity and urgency of action. But they need our support to get this done. They cannot act decisively if everybody gets hysterical and arm-chair quarterbacks every statement of action. Instead of emotional one-sided arguments, let’s think through some of his points about violent entertainment and video games. After all, our kids are at virtual war several hours a day. It is common sense to consider that this may have negative impact on some of them…especially the psychologically vulnerable.

Here are two applicable excerpts from my book, Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe, that address violent entertainment consumption in America:

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Violence for Profit: Passive Viewing of Television and Video

The United States has long been criticized as the dominant creator and celebrator of violent entertainment. Chalk it up to our fierce protection of the right to bear arms or our thirst for thrilling content, more and more Americans are fans of violent sports, television, movies, and video games. As adults gobble up violent content for entertainment, our children are too often exposed to violence early and often with little regard to the damage it may cause. Everybody is doing it. Right? Right. Yet it has been widely demonstrated that viewing screen violence, passively and interactively, causes aggressive and hostile behavior in children and adults. However, not everybody who watches violent TV or plays violent video games acts aggressively. How much is too much for children who are vulnerable due to immature brains?

First, we must accept that not all screen time is equal. Screen viewing can be passive (watching television and videos) or interactive (screen touch and video games). In regard to passive viewing of violent screen content, the American Psychological Association Council Policy Manual on Violence in Mass Media (1994) concludes from decades of research that there is correlative and causal risk. It specifically states:

On the basis of over 30 years of research and a sizeable number of experimental and field investigations, viewing mass media violence leads to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children, and has a long-lasting effect on behavior and personality, including criminal behavior;[i],[ii],[iii]

Viewing violence desensitizes the viewer to violence, resulting in calloused attitudes regarding violence toward others and a decreased likelihood to take action on behalf of a victim when violence occurs;[iv]

Viewing violence increases viewers’ tendencies for becoming involved with, or exposing themselves to, violence;

Viewing violence increases fear of becoming a victim of violence, with a resultant increase in self-protective behaviors and mistrust of others; and

Many children’s television programs and films contain some form of violence, and children’s access to adult-oriented media violence is increasing as a result of new technological advances.

These conclusions are particularly troubling when one considers that, despite these findings existing for decades, the Internet and screen technology has exploded access to on demand violent content for all ages. The younger the child, the more time viewed, and the intensity and applicability of the content, the more potential developmental impact. Research demonstrates that children who have not yet started talking are affected by screen viewing in ways parents cannot recognize and that impact changes month-to-month, year-to-year. Furthermore, even kids as young as infants who view alongside an older sibling or a parent may still be negatively affected by inappropriate content.

Violence for Profit: Gaming and Interactive Screen Use

All parents want their children to succeed and live happy lives. We’ve generally accepted that screens are part of it. But parents often wonder, how much impact does violent gaming content have on psychological process? Too often we are seeing school shooters reference violent video games in their pre-attack manifestos. Do we have anything to worry about?

The five main video game play genres include action, role-playing, simulation, strategy, and sports. Gaming ranges in content and interactivity from simple puzzle games to complex massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). In MMORPGs, a large number of people play online together as developed characters in complex, online lands with shared goals in real time. Platforms for gaming include smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming devices, computers, gaming consoles, and the developing market of virtual reality (wearable devices with sensors like a helmet, goggles, and gloves where users can “interact” with a three-dimensional environment) and augmented reality (computer-generated images superimposed on the player’s view of the real world, resulting in a realistic composite of real and virtual life).

Other new, immersive auditory and visual adjunct technologies include transmedia storytelling (story content presented across multiple platforms and formats using digital technology), mini-games (video games contained within video games), chrono- and geolocation (identifying the time and location of players), and object linking (embedded links that lead the player to sequential digital locations). With multibillions of dollars earned each year from the gaming market, gamevertising has also become increasingly prevalent. This means that games are being expertly designed for product placement and with manipulative neuropsychological principals built in to ensure that gamers stay online and spend more money.

Beyond education and entertainment, benefits that can be gained from playing video games include improvements in visual-spatial capabilities, reaction times, attention span, ability to process multiple target objects, and detail orientation,[v] as well as improved visual short-term memory, mental rotation, tracking, and toggling between tasks.[vi] Video games can also help with anxiety and mood and improve relaxation and improve problem solving, strategy building, goal setting, and cooperation with others.

Video games also have vocational applicability and can be customized for specific tasks, such as orienting and motivating employees, providing health care benefits like exercise or illness care, or teaching specialized skills like performing surgery or sporting ability.[vii] Some gamers compete in profitable e-sport tournaments in person and online, while others learn computer programming skills that can be marketable as a career specialty. Mastery of video games provides opportunity for increased confidence, social connection and networking, and self-esteem. Social benefits are particularly valuable for players who may be isolated by geographic remoteness or physical or mental disability.

Along with benefits come risks. Ninety-seven percent of teens play video games, and more than 85% of video games have violent content.[viii] As with all complex psychological phenomena, different effects happen in different situations with different people. Thus, issues like content, time spent playing, and player vulnerabilities due to family life or mental health must be taken into account when considering effect.[ix]This makes for messy factors to control for quality research and controversial opinions about the risks of violent video games.

Meta-analytic reviews of research have found that violent video games can cause aggressive behavior, aggressive thinking styles, and aggressive mood, as well as decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. In regard to the effect of violent video games on children, teens, and adults, the American Psychological Association Council Policy Manual Resolution on Violent Video Games (2015) concludes:

A convergence of research findings across multiple methods and multiple samples with multiple types of measurements demonstrates the association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement;

All existing quantitative reviews of the violent video game literature have found a direct association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes;

This body of research, including laboratory experiments that examine effects over short time spans following experimental manipulations and observational longitudinal studies lasting more than two years, demonstrates that these effects persist over at least some time spans;

Research suggests that the relation between violent video game use and increased aggressive outcomes remains after considering other known risk factors associated with aggressive outcomes;

Although the number of studies directly examining the association between the amount of violent video game use and amount of change in adverse outcomes is still limited, existing research suggests that higher amounts of exposure are associated with higher levels of aggression and other adverse outcomes;

Research demonstrates these effects are for children older than 10 years, adolescents, and young adults, but very little research has included children younger than 10 years;

Research has not adequately examined whether the association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes differs for males and females;

Research has not adequately included samples representative of the current population demographics;

Research has not sufficiently examined the potential moderator effects of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or culture; and

Many factors are known to be risk factors for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition and aggressive affect, and reduced prosocial behavior, empathy and moral engagement, and violent video game use is one such risk factor.[x}

Not only do video games affect gamers in the immediate, but they can also lead to increased aggressive behavior later in life.[xi] Furthermore, some players become desensitized to their environment,[xii] increasingly spend more time gaming, and ultimately feel more connected to their virtual world than the real world around them. With new immersive technologies being introduced to younger and younger children every day, one can’t even imagine true cognitive and psychological impact over time.

Thus far, attempts to regulate and block violent video game content from minors have largely been unsuccessful. Since the 1972 release of the first popular video arcade game, Pong, parents have worried about the impact of video gaming on their children. Just like our kids, we have largely become desensitized to its impact. From 1976, when parents succeeded in getting the video game Death Race pulled from the shelf due to the little gravestone that appeared when a character was killed, to now, we’ve come a long way baby. Or have we?

In response to video game players committing violence, several lawsuits have been filed by private citizens and class actions claiming that video game manufacturers were negligent by selling violent content that is harmful to children. However, few have succeeded due to first amendment rights claims and insufficient evidence related to flawed research methodology or correlational rather than causal research. City ordinances attempting to limit violent gameplay by unaccompanied minors in public places have also largely failed. Law professors and psychologists continue to argue that the evidence is too flimsy to make solid claims that video games cause violence, particularly considering the fact that despite widespread gameplay, the rate of juvenile violent crime is at a thirty-year low.

A particularly impactful blow against state regulation was the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011), which concluded by a seven to two opinion that the California law restricting the sale and distribution of violent video games to minors was unconstitutional. The ruling was based on first amendment rights, stating that “speech about violence is not obscene” and is “as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best in literature.”

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So, there you have it. Violent video games and entertainment are not turning us into gun-hungry zombies. Our avid gamers have friends, go to school, and love their families. We are not being infected en masse through our video consoles. But that doesn’t mean hours of violent play isn’t impacting us negatively, especially those vulnerable with growing brains or childhood trauma. Rather than arguing extreme positions and attacking issues of concern, let’s consider the idea that we can all do better. Four commonalities have been found among shooters; a history of childhood trauma, a situational crisis point, the study of previous shooters and searching for validation for their motives, and the means to carry out the hate crime.[xii] That leaves us with many potential entry points for intervention. Our first step is calm, generous, and intelligent dialogue. Let’s start acting like a community and make positive change. The finger-pointing is only a distraction.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

Works Cited

[i]Huston, A., Donnerstein, E., Fairchild, H., Feshbach, N., Katz, P., Murray, J., Rubinstein, E., Wilcox, B. & Zuckerman, D. (1992). Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

[ii]National Institute of Mental Health – NIMH (1982). Television & Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress & Implications for the Eighties, Vol. 1. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

[iii]Murray, J. P. (1973). Television & violence: Implications of the Surgeon General’s research program. American Psychologist, Vol. 28, pp. 472-478.

[iv]Krahe, B., Moller, I., Kirwil, L., Huesmann, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to Media Violence: Links with Habitual Media Violence Exposure, Aggressive Cognitions, & Aggressive Behavior. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 100, No. 4.

[v]Taylor, J. (2012, December 4). How Technology is Changing the Way Children Think & Focus. Retrieved October 18, 2012, from http://wwpsychologytoday.com/glog/the-power-prime/201212/how-technology-is-changing-the-say-children-think-and-focus

[vi]Holfeld, B., Cicha, J. & Ferraro, F. (2014). “Executive Function & Action Gaming among College Students.” Current Psychology Curr Psychol34.2: 376-88. Web.

[vii]Brown, S., Liebermann, D., Gemeny, B., Fan, Y., Wilson, D., & Pasta, D. (2009). Educational video game for juvenile diabetes: Results of a controlled trial. Vol. 22 (Issue 1), p. 77-89. Doi:10.3109/14639239709089835

[viii]NPD Group (2011). Kids & gaming, 2011. Port Washington, NY: The NPD Group, Inc.

[ix]Ferguson, C. (2011). Video Games & Youth Violence: A Prospective Analysis in Adolescents. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, Vol. 40, No. 4.

[x]Anderson, C., Ihori, Nobuko, Bushman, B., Rothstein, H., Shibuya, A., Swing, E., Sakamoto, A., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, & Prosocial Behavior in Eastern & Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, Vo. 126, No. 2.

[xi]Norcia, M. (2014, June 1). The Impact of Video Games. Retrieved October 26, 2014, from http://www.pamf.org/parenting-teens/general/media-web/videogames.html

[xii]Weger, U., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Virtually numbed: Immersive video gaming alters real-life experience. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(2), 562-565. Doi:10.3758/s13423-013-0512-2

[xiii] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-04/el-paso-dayton-gilroy-mass-shooters-data 

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