THE BLOG

Don't Buy Your Kid Grand Theft Auto V for Christmas

12/13/2013 12:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014
  • Brad J. Bushman Professor of Communication and Psychology, Ohio State University

As the holiday season approaches, teenagers around the world start getting itchy game-controller fingers as they dream of receiving their favorite new video games under the Christmas tree. Teens stay awake at night imagining ripping open the gift wrapping to find shiny boxes containing MiniGolf or Pinball 3D.

I'm kidding, of course. If sales figures are any indication, what most teens really want is the game Grand Theft Auto V. Teens may be dreaming of GTA, but it should be giving their parents nightmares. GTA V is rated M, "for mature players 17 and older," and is rated 18+ elsewhere in the world. What do people love so much about this game? In the GTA universe, players choose different missions and earn points by destroying parked vehicles, stealing cars, dealing drugs and killing pedestrians and police officers. Characters can regain health by paying to have sex with a prostitute, and can kill the prostitute afterwards to get their money. Happy holidays, everyone!

Some people see criticism of video game violence as the work of prudish killjoys who want to trample their First Amendment rights and censor the work of video game artists. But I approach the subject as a scientific researcher who has studied these games for 25 years. From that perspective, I have real concerns about letting teens play games like GTA.

Several colleagues and I recently conducted a comprehensive review of more than 130 studies involving more than 130,000 participants around the world. These studies show that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts and angry feelings and lead to higher heart rate and blood pressure and more aggressive behavior. Violent games also decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy and compassion for others. The effects occurred for males and females of all ages, regardless of where in the world they lived.

My Italian colleagues (Alessandro Gabbiadini, Paolo Riva, Chiara Volpato, and Luca Andrighetto) and I just conducted a new study that found that playing violent video games also leads to less self-control and more cheating. In our study, high school students 13 to 19 years old were randomly assigned to play either a violent video game (Grand Theft Auto III or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) or a nonviolent game (Pinball 3D or MiniGolf 3D) for 35 minutes.

During the experiment, a bowl containing chocolate M&M candy was placed next to the computer. The teens were told they could freely eat them, but were warned that high consumption of candy in a short time was unhealthy. Those who played the violent games ate more than three times as much candy as did the other teens

After playing the game, the teens took a quiz in which they were awarded one raffle ticket (good for prizes such as an iPad) for each right answer. They weren't watched when they took their tickets, and results showed that teens who played a violent game took more than eight times more unearned tickets as did other teens.

So teens eat more and cheat more when they're under the influence of violent video games.

And this study confirmed many other studies that show teens act more aggressively when they play games like GTA. In this study, participants competed with an unseen "partner" in a game in which the winner got to blast the other person with a loud noise through headphones. (There was actually no partner.) Teens who played the violent games chose to blast their ostensible partners with significantly louder noises that lasted longer than did teens who played the nonviolent games.

I'm more convinced now than I ever was that playing violent video games is not healthy for teens. As a parent of three teens, I know it is not easy to keep your kids from violent games when at least some of their friends have access to them. But it is worth the effort. I have no problem if adults want to play games like Grand Theft Auto. But please, keep them away from our teens. Instead, give them something like MiniGolf 3D. Who knows, they may even like it.