Can violent video games make kids more aggressive?

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The topic of virtual violence in video games resulting in real life aggression has long been controversial—and many courts have tested the limits of the “video games made me do it” defense. Now a new study published this week in the March issue of the Psychological Bulletin adds to the debate with findings suggesting that, while exposure to violence in video games may not have huge consequences—of the order of influencing the decision whether or not to join a gang, for example—there are very real implications of exposure to virtual violence. In a review of 130 studies including more than 130,000 subjects, researchers found that, regardless of age group, gender or culture, violent video games increased the likelihood of aggression and decreased empathy in kids.

The studies, whose subjects ranged from elementary school students to college undergraduates, were conducted in the U.S., Europe and Japan and included both genders. Lead author Craig Anderson, a psychology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, argues that these findings indicate that exposure to virtual brutality increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior, both in the short- and long-term.

Anderson believes that this latest research, adding to earlier inquiries, points to the need to move beyond the question of whether or not exposure to virtual bloodshed and violence can have negative consequences. Now, he says, it is time to work toward creating public policies and promoting in-home approaches that will better enable parents to cultivate environments for children that incorporate video games as a healthy component. Speaking with USA Today he pointed out that the “E” (for “everyone”) game categorization, for example, didn’t indicate whether or not a video game included violence:

“The rating itself does not tell you whether it is a healthy or unhealthy game… Any game that involves killing or harming another character in order to advance is likely to be teaching inappropriate lessons to whoever is playing it.”

An accompanying critique of the research, written by Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor at Texas A&M International University, suggested that Anderson and colleagues’ findings overestimated the influence of video games, USA Today reports. Ferguson pointed to his own research published earlier in the Journal of Pediatrics indicating that “delinquent peer influences, antisocial personality traits, depression, and parents/guardians who use psychological abuse” were strong risk factors for aggressive and violent behavior in youths, while things like neighborhood quality, parents’ domestic violence and violent video games “were not predictive of youth violence and aggression,” according to USA Today.

Anderson responded to the critique by acknowledging that the effect of video games on risk for later aggression was small—kids with no other risk factors aren’t likely to play video games for a couple weeks and become violent criminals, he says—and the aggression risk posed by video game violence should certainly should be considered within the context of other risk factors. But, he also argued, exposure to video game violence is one risk factor for aggression that parents can readily do something about.