Do parents need to worry?


Dr. Sal Iaquinta

Are video games good or bad for today’s youth? What a question!

Violent video games have long been hypothesized to increase violent behavior, yet no real evidence has been found to show that they actually do.

Teasing out violent video game exposure as a cause of actual violence is tough given that TV shows, movies, social media and the local news all celebrate violent acts daily. Celebrate might sound like the wrong word, however, a study of digital media found that the average American will witness 200,000 acts of violence on TV by the age of 18. A 1990s study of television violence found that 75% of acts resulted in no physical harm, no psychological harm in 90% and no question about morality in 87%, plus, the bad guys got away with it the majority of the time. So, sussing out the effects of video games on a youth already desensitized to violent acts by other mainstream media would be close to impossible.

Given that most of us are not violent, do video games have other mental health effects? It has only been in the last decade in which considerable research has been done on the benefits of gaming. Multiple studies have found players use video games to relax and reduce stress. There is certain satisfaction to gulping power pellets and devouring the very ghosts that were trying to engulf you. If that isn’t a metaphor for overcoming and defeating life’s struggles, I don’t know what is.

A few different studies in different countries came to the same result from studying gamers. Mental health and video gaming has a parabolic curve (upside-down “U”). A study in Iran of 444 children examining video game hours played per week and self-reported mental health found that the happiest children were the ones who played a moderate amount of games, seven to 10 hours per week. Kids who played excessively and kids who didn’t play at all both reported the poorest mental health.

This study also reinforced the idea that for the younger generations, video games are played by everyone (96% of girls age 12 to 15 reported playing video games). The kids were also questioned about the side effects of playing video games. The kids who played excessively were also the ones who perceived game-playing as safest. This could mean that many children are aware that gaming, like anything else, should be done in moderation and that the kids who don’t know it, don’t moderate. It could also mean that the children who show more of a video game “addiction” are also in denial that it could be harmful, a mindset not unusual for any sort of addiction.

Some other studies have examined “pro-social” games. These are multi-player games in which players have to work collaboratively to succeed. A study done in different age ranges and in three different countries (Japan, Singapore and the United States) found that kids who play pro-social games also have increased pro-social behavior in real life.

Which brings us back to violence. If games can influence pro-social behavior then wouldn’t they influence violent behavior? It does seem true that violent video games do not result in significant violent behavior, however, the Iranian study did find that boys who played excessive violent video games reported more aggressive behaviors than boys who did not. These behaviors were reported as name-calling, teasing and threatening other kids. But, which came first? Do violent kids end up attracted to violent video games, or do normal kids who play too many violent games end up emulating them? No clear answer on that one.

Do you or your kids need violent video games? No. It turns out that the most important factors for making a game successful are the level of challenge and the freedom to make choices. In short, the option to be free and be the person you want be (in other words, an option to escape the normal constraints of home and society) were the games people loved the most. Violence was not a factor.

Just understanding that factoid might open doors for conversation and insight into the person you know who seems to love to be immersed in the virtual world.

Dr. Sal Iaquinta is the author of “The Year They Tried To Kill Me.” He takes you on the Highway to Health every fourth Monday.

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