Friday, December 28, 2012

Do Video Games Make Kids Violent?

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting - or any mass shooting really - the talk will inevitably turn to the potential "cause" of violent video games.  Do violent video games make people violent or more aggressive?  Do they "desensitize" young people to violence?  Does that make them less empathetic and more prone to hurt, or simply not care about, other people?  It seems like an easy and obvious answer.  And, even the president of the NRA used "violent media" as an excuse for gun violence while, at the same time, defending guns.

Like all societal issues, the answer is not so simple.

Media certainly plays a role in our life, and it most definitely influences people.  However, it's a stretch to say that violent media, especially video games, causes people to commit violence.  That's true simply because the vast majority of people who use violent media do not, in fact, become homicidal sociopaths.  However, it is equally irrational to argue that violent media does not "influence" people.  Research over many years proves that media can desensitize viewers and users.  One of the most comprehensive studies by Iowa State psychology professor Craig Anderson proves as conclusively as can be done that "violent video game play does make kids more aggressive." Anderson's research is a review and synthesis of more than one hundred other studies, and the results are all but undeniable to anyone who respects science and research.

Of course, identifying these factors does not mean any change will come to society.  Video games - especially violent forms such as Call of Duty or Mortal Combat - are a huge billion dollar industry that is simply not going away.  That said, recent shootings such as Sandy Hook Elementary and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting indicate a need and willingness to re-direct the public policy debate concerning violent media.  Commentators will continue to call for action limiting the usage of violent media, though that directive is most often aimed at encouraging parents to closely monitor their own children.  Most people will concede that the action has to come at the level of individual choice among parents and young people.

Young people will continue to play video games, and after tragedies like mass shootings, people will debate the effects.  Clearly, violent media did not create or directly cause the recent tragedies in Connecticut or Colorado or San Diego.  And the majority of people who are exposed to violent media won't re-create the violence in their real lives.  However, as the tragedies continue, people will hopefully consider the warning from psychologist Dr. Leonard Sax in his book Boys Adrift that violent media is contributing to "a growing proportion of boys who are disengaged not only from school but from the real world."

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