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The Effect of Violent Video Games on Children

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The consumption of violent media is a topic for discussion with regards to its impact on impressionable American youths. The question of whether or not violent video games can have a negative impact on the mental health and psychological stability of children is an important one.

There is a need to determine how children are affected by violent video games since these games have become more popular and widely available in recent years. Moreover, regardless of what position one takes regarding the influence these games may have, it cannot be disputed that children (regardless of age) spend a considerable amount of their time using a variety of media, including social media and video games (Whitaker and Bushman 1034).

In fact, recent statistics on video game usage by children in the United States indicate that, typically, “99% of boys and 94% of girls play[ed] video games, and 70% of nine- to eighteen-year-olds report playing violent M-rated (for Mature players seventeen and older) games” (Whitaker and Bushman 1034). Admittedly, even video games that claim to be for all audiences (especially suited for young children) also contain some violence, although not as extensive or graphic as those rated M. Therefore, this paper will provide a review of the current research related to the effect of violent video games on children. Special emphasis is placed on studies and articles focused on changes in aggressive behavior and the theories that explain such changes. 

Background information on video games and its impact on young children

In spite of arguments to the contrary (which will be addressed in more detail later) the evidence appears convincing that regular playing of video games results in changes in the development of children, physical and especially cognitive, psychological and physiological (McLean and Griffiths 119). This is not to say that all changes are negative, because research also shows that positive changes are observed. There is a significant literature showing such positive impacts, but this relates to video games in different genres (developing thinking and reasoning skills, for example), not those filled with graphic violence and death. However, the most consistent findings related to violent video games and children indicate a clearly negative effect (McLean and Griffiths 119).

Many experts consider video games as instruments with an ability to persuade casual users to become regular (or even excessive) users (e.g., Gentile and Gentile 127). Since the attraction of video games in indisputable, including violent games, understanding how the latter affect children is critical.  

Aggression and violence - a byproduct?

This research article is concerned with theories of aggression, since it is important to understand how playing violent video games relate to the processes of the brain, both during the initial game playing and, perhaps more importantly, future behavior of people that are part of society. One theory in particular, called the General Aggression Model, is used to examine how exposure to violent media content affects a young person in the short- and long-term (Carnagey and Anderson 87). The theory is rather complex but, as a brief synopsis, it states that a young person becomes desensitized to violence due to the way the violent action is presented. While the action may at first appear frightening, as the game player moves through the game and gains emotional rewards from engaging in violent actions, the young person experiences “positive” psychological and physiological changes in their view toward violence.

In effect, a young person begins to view violence as ordinary and commonplace (Greitemeyer and McLatchie 659), rather than something to be avoided. As a result, the young person experiences definite cognitive changes that may include a diminished fear of personal injury (leading to greater risk-taking), and even a callous feeling toward violence and its victims (Greitemeyer and McLatchie 659). 

Relationship to social-cognitive theory

Another appropriate theory related to children’s playing of violent video games is the social-cognitive learning theory, which indicates a direct correlation between repeated behaviors (either positive or negative) and the development of a young person’s cognitive-emotional constructs, including empathy, emotional reactions, and hostility (Saleem, Anderson and Gentile 281). The evidence from studies based on social-cognitive learning theory clearly indicates that children involved with playing violent video games experience an increased presentation of aggressive behavior.

Significantly, Saleem et al. (281) found similar results even when previous aggressive traits were accounted for as variables. Furthermore, another study that applied social-cognitive theory to violent video games also containing offensive language obtained similar results (Ivory and Kaestle 224). These studies found aggressive behavior in children that included arguments and fights with their peers in various settings. While not explicitly mentioned in the research, a reasonable conclusion is that this kind of violence during early growth periods can lead to violence and crime later in life.

Video games remain popular with both children and adults, with adults (including parents) often viewing them as an easy method of keeping children occupied. In addition, officials in schools, youth residential treatment centers, and other agencies utilize video games in various ways over the course of their day while working with children (DeLisi, Vaughn, Gentile, Anderson and Shook 139). As troublesome as it may be, even in these latter settings, adults are often inclined to let children play violent video games in return for cooperative or compliant behavior. In light of the above-cited research, this behavior on the part of adults is troubling. This is especially true when children or youths have already shown an inclination toward psychopathology that may be aggravated by exposure to violent video games. 

Contrary evidence discrediting the impact of violent video games

There is a significant preponderance of literature pointing to the negative effect of violent video games on children. Conversely, a debate continues on the topic, especially in regards to assertions that these games produce aggressive and/or antisocial behavior. One of the most widely expressed complaints about the research is that video game playing—even violent games—are simply part of normal adolescent behavior. Furthermore, it is claimed that nearly all media that young people are exposed to include violence so it is impossible to isolate violent video games as the greater source of problematic youth behavior (DiLisi et al. 134). Specifically, a study by Ferguson, San Miguel, Garza, and Jerabeck claimed:

“Video game violence was not related to child or parent reported pathological aggression. In bivariate correlations, video game violence use was related to reduced dating violence; however, this relationship did not hold once other variables were controlled. These results confirm expectations by other scholars that any links between video games and aggression are merely the byproduct of other processes occurring in the life of the child.” (144)

There is also a significant amount of research that claims to find little if any evidence connecting violence displayed in the media—in any format—and subsequent violence or criminal activity perpetrated in real life (see Ferguson et al. 146). Admittedly, however, few studies exist that address violence or delinquency by young people, which significantly skews the results found in the literature overall. While there is current research on delinquent behavior among children, it's not focused on violence. In most cases, these studies examined extreme cases of violent actions and crimes (DiLisi et al. 134). Even the supporters of the connection between childhood use of violent video games and aggressive behavior admit that investigating very serious violence must, of necessity, include multiple causal factors (like childhood trauma), which will limit (or even eliminate) the effect of violent video game use.

Legal action against violent video games - Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA)

This debate was brought to a head in 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled against a law in California that would have placed some restrictions on children’s access to violent video games in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA). The law required parental permission prior to a child purchasing a video game rated M (for mature). The debate before the Court played out exactly as it has over the entire course of the history of battling research studies—one claiming a negative effect on children who play violent video games and one claiming no negative effect.

Of course, the question is asked by many observers: how can studies obtain results that are so contradictory when examining the same issue? According to DeLisi et al (134), the primary factor involved is an emphasis on dissimilar outcomes. Specifically, the studies that were already mentioned in this paper address “aggression” in children as the result of violent video game usage, while the other side of the debate stresses “violence.” 

Explaining “Aggression” in the Research

In Brown v. EMA, the Court was not unanimous; with two Justices believing the scientific evidence presented by Brown’s attorneys was compelling, while the others were not convinced. In fact, the Justices, in their opinion, did not even believe the evidence provided could “prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning)” (Supreme Court 12-13). Of course, as DeLisi et al (134) observed, the type of studies under discussion never address the concept of “proof”, since that is a term rarely used in such research. The fact that extensive literature points to the connection between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior (especially affecting thinking processes and cognitive levels), the Court was unable to make that connection. 

The Court, admittedly (and thankfully) does not deal in scientific truth, but the Justices also admitted that their concern is not with “…passing judgment on the view…that violent video games…corrupt the young or harm their moral development” (Supreme Court 17). What the Court is concerned with—and why they were compelled to reach a decision that fell in line with those who oppose the basic contention of this paper—is the law, and the type of legal issues that may eventually be judged by the Court. The level of aggression found in the literature investigating the effect of violent video games on children simply does not reach the level of criminality that concerns the Court. For that reason, the decision in Brown v. EMA in no way minimizes the impact of the literature (DeLisi et al. 134).

Summary and Conclusion

Since children play video games regularly, and many consistently play games with violent content, it is vital to understand how these games will affect their cognitive development.  Unfortunately, children with some type of psychiatric or psychosocial issues are more likely to play violent video games than others. As explained by DeLisi et al (132), some children’s video game usage reaches as much as 40 hours per week. If a large percentage of that time consists of violent video games there is little doubt—based on the evidence provided in the literature—that the effect is increased levels of aggression and other antisocial behaviors. These are statistics that every adult in a position of oversight or responsibility for children must be aware of and understand their implications; playing violent video games presents a significant risk factor for children. 

This brief review of the effects of violent video games on children confirmed the theories predicting increased aggressive behavior what these theories, such as social-cognitive learning theory. Children become more aggressive both in the short-term as well as in later years, as a result of repeated exposure to the violent actions contained in such games. This is especially true when the games involve a personal involvement in that violence (such as first-person shooter games). In spite of the critics’ or public’s perception that the issue is not resolved, action must be taken to limit children’s exposure to violent video games. This begins with parental supervision and extends to other adults who can make an impact on a child’s life in the form of family support.

Works Cited

Carnagey, Nicholas L and Craig A. Anderson. Theory in the study of media violence: The general aggression model. In D. A. Gentile (Ed.), Media violence and children: A  complete guide for parents and professionals (pp. 87-106). Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

DeLisi, Matt, Michael G. Vaughn, Douglas A. Gentile, Craig A. Anderson and Jeffrey J. Shook.  Violent Video Games, Delinquency, and Youth Violence: New Evidence. Youth Violence  and Juvenile Justice 11.2 (2012): 132-142.

Ferguson, Christopher J., Claudia San Miguel, Adolfo Garza and Jessica M. Jerabeck. A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: A 3-year  longitudinal study of adolescents. Journal of Psychiatric Research 46 (2012): 141-146.

Gentile, Douglas A. and J. Ronald Gentile. Violent video games as exemplary teachers: A conceptual analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 9 (2008): 127-141. 

Greitemeyer, Tobias and Neil McLatchie. Denying humanness to others: A newly discovered mechanism by which violent video games increase aggressive behavior. Psychological  Science 22 (2011): 659-665.

Ivory, Adrienne H. and Christine E. Kaestle. The Effects of Profanity in Violent Video Games  on Players’ Hostility Expectations, Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings, and Other  Responses. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 57.2 (2013): 224-41. 

McLean, Lavinia and Mark Griffiths. The psychological effects of videogames on young people: A review. Aloma 31.1 (2013): 119-133.

Saleem, Muniba, Craig A. Anderson and Douglas A. Gentile. Effects of Prosocial, Neutral, and Violent Video Games on Children’s Helpful and Hurtful Behaviors. Aggressive Behavior  38 (2012): 281-287.

Supreme Court of the United States. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 08-1448. Washington, DC: Author, 2011.  http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf. 

Whitaker, Jodi L. and Brad J. Bushman. A Review of the Effects of Violent Video Games on  Children and Adolescents. Washington & Lee Law Review 66.3 (2009): 1033-1050. 

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