Managing Video Game Violence

Tech Talk 001

Many children, especially boys, lobby hard to play computer or video games that are popular with friends. How do parents determine what games are acceptable?

Many gamers believe violent video games can be a healthy outlet for aggressive feelings. However, Craig Anderson, a psychologist and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C., believes the link between video games and aggression is indisputable.

After analyzing 130 research studies, Anderson found conclusive evidence that exposure to video game violence increases aggressive thinking and behavior and reduces empathy and kindness.

For kids younger than 12 who are still developing a sense of right and wrong, it makes sense to exercise tight control. Look for games that have educational value and, when possible, pro-social values. The nonviolent games section of CommonSenseMedia.org is a good place to start.

Before banning games, talk with your child about what he hopes to achieve by playing it. A sense of camaraderie with friends? The thrill of doing something forbidden? The challenge of conquering difficult obstacles? Have your child make a case for why the game is a good way to spend his free time.

Then express your own concerns, being as specific as possible about why a particular game worries you. Does it endorse gang culture or criminal behavior? Promote drug and alcohol use? Include obscene language? Encourage disrespect toward women or minorities? Include unnecessarily brutal or gratuitous violence?

Talking through these issues won’t be easy and, in the end, you are likely to decide that certain games have no place in your home. Still, research suggests these conversations are worth having because they help young people think critically about the content of video games and that, in turn, makes them less susceptible to the games’ influences. Here are other ways parents can manage video game-playing at every age.

Play games together. Let your child walk you through the game. Pay attention to constructive aspects of the game: cooperation among players to reach a goal, strategic thinking and coordination. Notice the effect the game has on your child. Does he or she become animated, aggressive, confident, discouraged or withdrawn?

Use ESRB ratings. They aren’t perfect, but Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings (available at esrb.com) protect kids from some of the most violent games. Talk to other parents and read reviews from family-friendly organizations. If you have doubts about whether a game is suitable, rent before you buy.

Teach healthy conflict resolution. From a young age, help your child express feelings and develop empathy for the feelings of others. Actively encourage your child to resolve disagreements through creative compromise. Teach her how to release anger and frustration without violence. If your child is having trouble resolving conflicts peaceably in real life, restrict access to video games.

Enforce time limits. Research suggests that the aggressive spill-over from video games is less serious when kids have the self-discipline to step away from the game. Help your child develop self-control by establishing time limits for video game-playing. If necessary, enforce the rules with parental controls. A detailed step-by-step guide to controls for all gaming systems can be found at esrb.com.

Finally, it’s important to remember to enlist the powerful teaching capabilities of video games to promote cooperation and goodwill instead of aggression and mayhem. The game Journey, for example, explores the human longing for companionship and provides a great game experience with arresting graphics and Grammy Award-winning music. If parents can encourage video game companies to develop more games like that, everyone in the family will be happy!

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing about technology and families for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.

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