Do Violent Video Games Affect Children?

O Playing Video Games

Question: My 8- and 11-year-old sons love video games — all kinds, including ones that are very violent. We could lay down the law and eliminate the aggressive video games, at least in our home, but our boys will protest mightily. We are ready to go to the mat on this one if it is really important. Is it?

Answer: Researchers have been very interested in the possible effects of video game violence on children for some time. We will review the current information and discuss how you might apply this research to your individual situation.

Violent games impact individuals differently

The question of whether children’s participation in violent video games can lead to an increase in violent thoughts, emotions and behaviors has been resolved, and the conclusive answer is yes. Studies that have provided this answer are based on statistical comparisons between large groups of children who do or don’t play violent video games. After drilling down on the current, best information, however, it turns out that the overall effects are relatively small and hard to quantify precisely.

What is a parent to do with this information, since statistics often don’t provide practical guidance? How can parents make a judgment about the extent to which their child might be vulnerable to being affected negatively by video violence?

The research provides some information that helps. Most children do not seem to be negatively affected by video games. Children who already have violent thoughts or behaviors are more likely to be affected negatively by exposure to video games. The amount of exposure also seems to be related to the amount of risk. Understanding the proper role of aggression in a healthy life can help parents apply this information.

Integrating anger and aggression with other reactions

Emotionally strong children have vibrant amounts of aggression and a strong capacity to experience anger. Unless children are free to experience their aggressions and anger, they cannot assert themselves on their own behalf; be appropriately competitive and ambitious; stand up for themselves when they have been wronged; and experience, tolerate and manage frustration and disappointments.

However, having vibrant amounts of aggression and a strong capacity to experience anger is just one aspect of a healthy relationship with one’s anger and aggression. The capacity to integrate is another essential emotional experience. Children have a healthy relationship to their aggression and anger when they can integrate these components of their personality with all of their other components: their love and concern for others, values and moral sense, and a pragmatic sense of achieving their desired goals in their life.

Consider these two examples: Jonah is 4 years old. He has an assigned place for circle time in preschool. On this occasion, when he arrives at his circle time spot, he finds Kevin sprawled across his place. Jonah pushes Kevin aside, calling him a “dummyhead.” His teacher settles the resulting altercation, indicating her disappointment in both children’s behaviors.

Robert is in the same situation with Charles. Robert sharply tells Charles to “move over.” Charles grunts and does not move. Robert calls his teacher, saying petulantly, “Mrs. Smith, Charles is lying in my spot.” Mrs. Smith guides Charles to his spot, the two children glare at each other, and Mrs. Smith quietly compliments Robert for using his words and for calling her over.

Both Jonah and Robert were angry. Both asserted themselves aggressively. However, Jonah gave prominence to his anger and lost sight of his caring side, his moral sense that he should treat others respectfully, and his wish to maintain the approval of his teacher. His aggression mastered him in an undesirable way. Robert came up with a response mindful of all of the factors Jonah put aside. His response had some rough edges, but was integrated and emotionally healthy. He mastered his aggression.

Video games provide a model for aggressive responses that are not integrated with other considerations. If your child is able to integrate his aggression and anger with the other aspects of his personality, there is likely little risk that he will be influenced toward responding aggressively in a way that is reflexive and un-integrated. In fact, if he is the kind of child who is overly restricted with regard to experiencing and expressing anger and aggressions, some video game exposure might even free him a bit.

However, if your child is already experiencing excessive situations in which his anger and aggression have mastered him, rather than the reverse, we would caution against further exposure to violent video games. Unfortunately, children with this challenge are often particularly drawn to such games, complicating parents’ task of controlling their child’s use of them.

As with so many situations, there is no black and white answer. Use this information — and your intuition and knowledge of your particular child — to come up with the most supportive solution to the violent video game dilemma.

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. This month’s question may be a composite or illustration of a parent’s concerns.

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