'Violent' Video Games Don't Cause Later Aggression in Kids, According to New Longitudinal Study

07/09/2017 11:31 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2017

In the early aughts (2000s), some researchers confidently asserted that clear evidence linked ‘violent’ video games (an emotional but vague term) to aggression in children. Since then, the research evidence has fractured considerably with more and more studies coming out finding no evidence that video games meaningfully influence aggression. Longitudinal studies that track children over time have, for the most part, found little convincing evidence that children experience harm due to playing ‘violent’ games. Now, a new study from the Netherlands adds to this pool of good news.

The study consists of 194 children from the Netherlands (one of the highest per-capita game consuming countries apparently.) Children and their parents were surveyed for their overall gaming habits, exposure to ‘violent’ games, as well as various mental health related outcomes including aggressiveness. Children were about age 9 at the time of the first assessment, with the longitudinal follow-up coming a year later.

Results indicated that exposure to ‘violent’ video games at age 9 was not predictive of aggression or reduced prosocial behaviors one year later. Overall gaming, likewise, was unrelated to most mental health issues including attention problems or reduced social functioning, or total mental health difficulties. However, gaming was slightly related to increased mood symptoms like depression and anxiety, although the relationship was a small one.

So, overall the news is good. The relationship between overall gaming and mood issues isn’t necessarily causal (depressed kids may stay home and play video games all day.) But it does suggest that when kids are overdoing it...playing excessively even compared to other kids...it may be time for parents just to check in and make sure everything is ok. This doesn’t mean that every preoccupied young gamer is a basket case (again, the correlation was small) but no harm in having a conversation.

The study isn’t perfect...like most studies, the term ‘violent’ video game is used rather bluntly, and I would have liked to see more ‘control’ variables (age, sex and parent education were controlled in the analyses). But the study benefits from using standardized outcome measures which reduce experimenters’ abilities to fiddle with the results to get results they want (a common problem in psychological research, much of which, in fairness, experiments do unconsciously rather than consciously.) More such studies that have the ability to reduce what are called ‘researcher expectancy effects’ would be welcome.

I keep putting ‘violent’ in annoying air-quotes because, though the term is in common usage, it doesn’t really have much conceptual value. Indeed, its value seems to be mainly emotional...convincing the audience to loathe the games before data is even presented. After all, we don’t really talk about ‘violent books’ because what would that term even mean? Would we include the Bible and Hindu Ramayana with Stephen King, with Shakespeare, with comic books, with Harry Potter, with Grimms’ Fairy Tales, with just about any book on history, with the Red Badge of Courage, etc., and assume these are all conceptually the same because they happen to include violence? That’s nonsense. Yet we do this with video games (and I’ve been guilty of it as well, in fairness.) Using the term ‘violent video game’ whips up audiences unfamiliar with games, but has little scientific conceptual value (though that doesn’t stop scholars from using the term.) ‘Violent’ video game is such a broad term it includes almost all games, from Pac Man, through Oregon Trail, right up to Grand Theft Auto 5 and beyond.

Undoubtedly, the massive flood of video game studies that followed in the wake of the Columbine Massacre of 1999 is far from over. With virtual reality on the horizon (well, technically it’s already here), there’s a whole new level of immersion to worry over. But, for the most part, for parents the news is good. You’ve got plenty of bigger things to worry about than video games.

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