Do violent video games trigger real-world violence? It's easy to believe that they might, especially in the wake of recent tragedies like the fatal shooting of an elderly woman allegedly by an 8-year-old who had been playing "Grand Theft Auto."
But despite decades of research into the possibility that the mayhem depicted in "Grand Theft Auto," "Mortal Kombat," and similar games is turning our kids into merciless killers, scientists have yet to find a smoking gun. At least they haven't been able to agree which way the gun is pointing.
The research has yielded conflicting results, with some studies showing a link between the games and real-world violence and others showing no such link, Mother Jones reported in June.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry maintains that "studies of children exposed to violence have shown that they can become 'immune' or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior with greater exposure to violence."
But not everyone is convinced.
Research "has really not provided much evidence for links between video game violence and youth violence, at least not within general samples of kids," Dr. Christopher Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. and a leading expert on the psychological and behavioral effects of video game playing, told The Huffington Post in an email. "At this point the evidence has pretty well ruled out the idea that video game violence causes 'normal' kids to behave violently."
The same may also hold true for "vulnerable" children -- those with emotional and neurodevelopmental disorders. A new study by Ferguson and a colleague showed that kids with symptoms of depression or ADHD who played violent video games were no more likely than other kids to become bullies or delinquents. In fact, playing the games seemed to have a mild calming effect on youths with attentional deficits, reducing their aggression and bullying behavior.
The study involved 377 American children from various ethnic groups, with an average age of 13. It was published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
Ferguson acknowledged that the new findings might not apply in extreme cases, such as those involving youths who commit mass homicides. But, he added, "Statistically speaking it would actually be more unusual if a youth delinquent or shooter did not play violent video games, given that the majority of youth and young men play such games at least occasionally."
Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old responsible for last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, reportedly was obsessed with video games.
Whether or not an incontrovertible link between violent video games and violent behavior is eventually established, experts agree that devoting too much time to video games can cause problems for kids. These range from lower social skills and poor grades to not getting enough exercise, according to the academy.
What's a parent to do? "Learn the ESRB ratings," Ferguson said, referring to the ratings issued by the Entertainment Software Review Board. "If parents understand the ratings systems and the tools at their disposal (such as existing parental controls on the consoles), they may be less worried about not having control over their children's media access."
That might not help a video-game-obsessed child get fitter or earn better grades, but it could protect parents from what Ferguson calls the "moral panic" that stems from the misguided assumption that shoot-'em-up games turn kids into shooters.