Does Playing Violent Video Games Cause Violence?

This seemingly simple question does not have a simple answer. Here’s why.

There are studies that report links between playing video games with violent content and measures of aggression. Many of these studies show small statistical associations – meaning that it is not highly predictive of aggressive behavior. In addition, many focus on kids’ self-reports of their own aggressive behavior. While this is one valid way of measuring aggression, it is not the only way – which limits the take-home messages from these studies. And we all know that “association” (or correlation) is not the same thing as causation.

Consider a recent well-designed study published in Developmental Psychology. The study authors reported that teen accounts of their frequency of playing violent video games were predictive of increases in their self-reported aggressive behavior over time. There were a number of statistical and measurement controls to ensure that this prediction was not due to “selection effects” – meaning that kids with higher levels of aggression at the start of the study were more drawn to violent video games – or the impact of other factors. But while this study provides evidence of a predictive link between playing violent video games and self-reported aggression, it doesn’t give us the answer to the question many of us are asking now. Why not? Simply put, this study did not focus on violence, especially the type of extreme violence we are witnessing such as school shootings.

Here’s the bigger issue. Many kids play video games. Large percentages, at some point in time, play games with some violent content. Very few kids turn into mass murderers. Simply sorting through large samples of kids and trying to use statistical models to find the linkage between violent video game content to find the type of prediction we are looking for will be a daunting task. Indeed, after decades of research we are just seeing reports – like the one published in Developmental Psychology – that are providing clearer evidence of links between playing violent video games and aggression (which is a much more frequent behavior to study).

So where do we go from here?

Of course more research is necessary. But we have to think hard about the type of research we need – and the question we are asking. If we want to know more about aggression, there is a large platform from prior studies that can be built upon to provide better estimates of the impact of playing violent video games. This is certainly an area worth researching. This approach, however, won’t tell us much about violent behavior such as a mass shooting. We need new paradigms that can lay out other predisposing factors to violence – in terms of personality, social development, mental health – and large enough samples that can begin to explore if kids with these characteristics (many of which still need to be explicated) are more unduly influenced by playing violent video games. We also need to ask if it makes a difference if they have access to guns. We need to be willing to commit to an open-minded public health framework that will take on mental health, access to guns, and violent video game content in a comprehensive way if we are going to make any real headway. And, as always, this will need to be funded. Until all of this happens, we will not have a simple answer to the simple question we are asking.

Gaming Concept via Shutterstock.com

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  1. [...] 6 ways to curb your child’s aggressive behavior. (Parents.com) [...]

  2. by Brittany R.

    On February 19, 2013 at 9:58 am

    I think violent video games cause kids to become desensitized to the violence that they see in the games. Many of these school and mass shooters have been on anti-psychotic , antidepressant medications for prolonged periods of time. Many kids loose their sense of true reality and can act out what they daydream; others feel that they have no other option for getting attention, so do something dramatic and it wimp get on the news. Matinee, we the Parents, need to turn off our electronics and spend time with our kids doing what they like to do… We will find out more about them and they will feel closer to us in the long run.

  3. by Tamie Gangl

    On February 19, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I have raised 5 children and I omitted violence in our home.Video games and T.V. are both violent. Ads for movies that pertain violence should be banned from T.V. before 9 P.M. so children don’t have to be subjected to this.Our society has become more violent and Actors are making nothing but money.don’t worry about banning guns, ban the thrown in our face violence.

  4. by lola

    On February 26, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Very useful

  5. by Tom

    On March 10, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Violence in children is caused by the disposition of mental disorders or bad health. If the parents want to not teach the children that the game is not reality, that’s their choice but they are doing nothing but damage by banning violent games and movies. If somebody does that to a child, the child will want to reenact what they had seen before or think it is “cool” to be that way. How many times did a parent say no or take something away then the child wanted it more? Banning is not the answer, it is educating.

  6. by Jill

    On April 14, 2013 at 10:29 am

    My child is 9 and plays Call of Duty, I don’t particularly like it but he does. it has violence, BUT he is one of the most calm, loving kids you’ll meet! He’s not a rambunxous, annoying, aggressive, hateful, kid! I work at a school and trust me I know kids that are all of these things and then some. He actually is very laid back and would only fight back if he had to. And then I even wonder if he would! Video games don’t make a kid become whacko unless they are already unstable in some way mentally. Thanks!

  7. by Deborah

    On April 14, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    The problem is that it’s like Pandora’s box. If you see the violence and desensitize yourself to it, it’s always going to be there in your psyche. If you’re spiritual, it goes a LOT deeper than that. The kids that are pulling these masacres, are usually the bullied ones with a grudge, and they are often on the psychotropic drugs/antidpressants, which are given “off label” (the doctors–wanting to push the pharmacology, give them to you–as the parent wanting easy answers–with the full knowledge that they can produce suicidal thoughts in teens). Our son was on Lexapro for a time, as he developed Fibromyalgia at 14. He was depressed and stressed leading into his condition, and more stressed and in immense pain afterward. He did have a lot of bullying, but never took it out on anyone, but he was starting to cut and veer toward the suicidal thoughts–realizing the bullying was probably to a large degree responsible for the Fibromyalgia, so we took him off of the medications. Society as a whole is to blame, not only for letting their kids participate in bullying, but also for paying and game-makers and Hollywood for the violent films so that they keep loading it up on the screen (film and videogames).

  8. by yvonne morales

    On April 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Violent people have existed way before video games or television were invented. Jack the ripper never held a controller . I think violent people will seek to do harm and search out violent situations no matter what they are exposed to. I’d be more worried about children