The impact of television, both positive and negative, on children has been a subject of both heated opinion and scientific research for the last several decades. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association have weighed in on this topic and have confirmed the link between television and violence and aggression. The typical American child watches 28 hours of television a week and by the age of 18 will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.

In the last several years the television debate has been extended to video games, many of which involve aggression. Because the popularity of video games is relatively recent, only limited research has been conducted on its effects. However, several articles have recently reported that video games may have negative effects on children's aggression and desensitization to violence. For reactions to these studies and comments on the issue of video games and violence, AOK interviewed Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., Director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center.

Does your experience bear out the general conclusion of these studies that we should be concerned about the kind of video games available?
Yes. A large number of children and teens are playing increasingly violent games. Most youth are able to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy, so they see the games as pointless entertainment. But, some kids get immersed in the violence, which may contribute to a cold-hearted view of other people. It may make them prone to aggressive thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

Do you think that violence in video games may actually be more harmful than violence in television or movie scripts?
Some aspects of video game violence are worrisome. "First-person" games in which the player sees the action as if he or she was the shooter can desensitize the player to violence. These games are actually used in military training to help soldiers become used to the process of harming others.

Is time spent on video games likely to affect academics?
Yes. Clearly, too much time on any video entertainment takes away from time spent on school work.

What is the appeal of video games that leads some children to become addicted?
The games provide a high level of quick gratification. You are almost constantly being rewarded and, when you lose, you get to easily start over to work on your goal.

It has been suggested that playing video games has advantages. For example, it may enhance a child's motor coordination and ability to think quickly and analyze a situation. Do these possible advantages outweigh any negative impact?
Used in moderation, the advantages can be very helpful. The negative affects are found with excessive play, so the benefits may outweigh any possible negative impact if the time spent is kept within reasonable limits.

Do you see any other advantages to playing video games?
If the games are viewed as a form of light entertainment, they can have advantages. As part of a balanced entertainment diet, the games can provide stress relief for kids, they can help with aspects of coordination and concentration on visual details, and they help kids relate to one another in some forms of healthy competition. As long as this part of the entertainment diet is not overdone, video games can have useful purposes.

Does a child's predisposition affect his/her experiences with video games?
We don't know that information right now. However, it seems that kids that are prone to get excited by violence are often over stimulated by games. They may have an increased reaction to the content of the games when compared to others. Several of the teens responsible for school shootings were highly invested in "first person" games.

In a 1982 report by the Surgeon General of the United States and a follow-up report by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) they listed concerns that children might

  • become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others
  • become more fearful of the world around them
  • be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways towards others.

Are these concerns relevant today?
They are even more relevant because of the increased reality in video games. First person shooting games with realistic or exaggerated depictions of gore seem likely to have an even greater impact than the images being reviewed over 20 years ago.

Should parents limit their children's access to video games and if so, how?
Parents should limit their children's time on video games. As noted before, it is helpful to consider a child's leisure time diet and parents should think about how well balanced it is. Video games that are violent or of limited instructional value can be thought of as treats or guilty pleasures. Children can enjoy them in moderation while they are also participating in leisure activities that enlighten them, provide physical and mental exercise, and enrich their experiences.

What should be the direction of future research into the effects of video games?
We need to know more information on the effect of the different types of video games and the different components of video games. For example, which aspects of the games enhance fine-motor coordination and which aspects facilitate concentration. For the different types of content, what are the emotional and physiological reactions to the content and how long do those reactions last? Finally, what is the impact of different amounts of video game playing and how do video games interact with other forms of entertainment to build or detract from social , emotional, and intellectual development?

References

Anderson, C. A. & Dill, K.E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 78, No. 4, 772-790.

Carnagey, N., Anderson, C., Bushman. B. (2006). The effects of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2006 (on-line edition).