I’m an avid video gamer. I love them. The last article I wrote with Dr. Bennett for GetKidsInternetSafe talked about the benefits of gaming. But the truth is, most popular video games aren’t designed for young kids. They’re designed for intense arousal and, ultimately, profit. Violence and sex are common game elements and research has demonstrated that exposure can have a lasting effect on a child’s brain. However, child advocacy groups have not been able to pull them off the shelves. The best they could do is accept the game industry’s voluntary offer to develop their own rating system for better-fit purchases. Today’s GKIS article covers why experts are concerned about child exposure to video game violence and why the research hasn’t been enough to make a dent in the global game industry’s annual 152-billion-dollar revenue.
Ninety-seven percent of teens play video games, and more than 85% of video games have violent content. Most kids start playing long before adolescents. As with all complex psychological activities, different effects happen in different situations with different people of different ages. A variety of issues, like content, time spent playing, ability to be interactive, and player vulnerabilities, must be taken into account when considering effect. This makes for messy factors to control for quality research and controversial opinions about the risks of violent video games.
The Benefits of Gaming
That is a complicated question. In Dr. Bennett’s book, Screen Time in the Mean Time, she covered many of the benefits of gaining. Not only are they fun, but research has also found that they can lead to improvements in:
- visual-spatial capabilities
- reaction times
- attention span
- ability to process multiple target objects
- detail orientation
- visual short-term memory
- mental rotation, tracking, and toggling between tasks
- strategy building
- goal setting
- and increased confidence, social connection and networking, cooperation, and self-esteem.
Social benefits are particularly valuable for players who may be isolated by geographic remoteness or physical or mental disability. Gaming can even lead to marketable job skills and profitable e-sport tournament competition.
The Risks of Gaming
Research has demonstrated that violent video games negatively affect perceptions about the safety of the world and others and also impact behavior, such as being more aggressive and less empathetic and prosocial.
A 2014 experiment compared kids who played violent games to a group of children who played non-violent games. They found that the children playing violent video games were less likely to aid an injured individual, rated violent acts less seriously, and were desensitized to hearing fights.
Another study found that prolonged exposure to violence created the idea in children’s heads that violence is an acceptable form of problem-solving. Researchers found that prolonged exposure to violence created a mean world syndrome, defined as a belief that the world is a dark and sinister place. Children playing violent video games may also have a greater chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders due to the aggressive and stressful environments of the game.
Is video gaming addictive?
The short answer is, not for most players. It wasn’t until 2018 that the World Health Organization (WHO) classified gaming as an addiction. Further, the most respected diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, (DSM-5) only listed gaming as a potential mental illness in need of further study. They argued that, for screen addiction to be considered valid, further scientific information must be conducted.
At the time of the 2013 DSM-5 publication, there were over 250 reviewed publications from Asia and fewer from North America that described mostly youth and young adult subjects who engaged in extended Internet gameplay without sleep or eating that resulted in severe consequences, such as seizures and death. Studies that compared different types of Internet use (social media use, online gambling, pornography viewing, etc.) concluded that gaming was distinctly more disabling.
Like the effects of addictive drugs on the brain, a child who’s repeatedly exposed to violent content may require greater and greater stimulation to get the same effect. In addiction studies, we call that desensitization and tolerance effects. The irritability and agitation when the game is taken away or too boring is called withdrawal. But even those studies estimated that only 1-5% of gamers (mostly single young males) escalated to internet gaming addiction.
Video games are not designed for young kids.
Video game companies develop games made specifically for children, but they amount for a small percentage of the gaming market’s overall revenue. The average age of a gaming consumer is 32-years-old. Since 2009 the top-selling video games have all been rated mature. Because of good marketing and pester power, a significant portion of those sales come from parents of young kids. Young players are so common on MMORPGs they’re referred to as squeakers due to their child voices. Child predators are commonly known to hunt for victims on gaming platforms, even placing lures in PokémonGo, which are in game items that spawn rare Pokémon catches. Children close by will notice the new location and travel to catch the Pokémon unaware of the trap being set.
Other Means of Access
Without your consent or knowledge, your child could be watching violent and sexual video games. Video streaming sites such as YouTube, Twitch, and Mixer allow your child access to other people playing violent and sexual video games. Apart from the violence and sexual content of the game, the video streaming players your child watches may use vulgar language or engage in inappropriate behaviors on camera. On Twitch TV, many female streamers dress in revealing clothes. Some have even been banned for nudity.
Regulating Video Games
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.” It’s interesting that Americans tend to be horrified about kids viewing sexual content, yet we are somewhat complacent about their viewing violent content. Is viewing online sexual activity damaging to kids?
Video Gaming Rating System
To counteract consumer complaints and legislation aimed at enacting regulating controls and preventing child access, the video game industry created the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994. This voluntary and self-regulating board rates content and classifies video games based on the appropriate user age. Most stores refuse to sell video games that don’t have an ESRB rating. Similar rating systems exist in other countries. Overall, ESRB ratings have been somewhat successful limiting child access
You, the parent, have the final word when it comes to what games your child can play. Review ESRB ratings before purchasing the next game for your child.
RP (Rating Pending) – this is placed on games which have not yet received a final ESRB rating
EC (Early Childhood) – suitable for ages 3+, these games tend to be educational and do not contain any inappropriate material
E (Everyone) – suitable for all ages, may contain mild fantasy or cartoon violence
E10+ (Everyone 10+) – suitable for ages 10+, may contain mild language, fantasy or cartoon violence
T (Teen) – suitable for ages 13+, may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, blood, infrequent use of strong language
M (Mature) – suitable for ages 17+, may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, strong language
A (Adults) – suitable for ages 18+, may contain prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content, gambling with real currency
Tips for Parents
- Check the ESRB ratings before purchasing.
- Engage in play with your child from time to time to learn about the games content, and to model appropriate play.
- Set clear rules as to how long play can be, at home and away with your free GKIS Connected Family Agreement.
- Monitor your child’s online gaming conversations to make sure there are not taken advantage of or threatened.
- Set up gaming stations in a family community area (never the bedroom) to optimize supervision.
- Encourage your child to engage in alternative activities for healthy balance, learning, and enriched learning.
Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Dylan Smithson for providing us with an experienced and balanced perspective about gaming. If you missed his first article, Is Your Child a “Professional Gamer”?, it is well worth the read!
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
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