Aggression, Bullying & Antisocial Behaviour in Childhood: the impact of violent video games on the aggressiveness of children and adolescents
College for Humanistic Sciences – ICPS
University of Central Lancashire
M.Sc. in Psychology of Child Development
Aggression, Bullying & Antisocial Behaviour in Childhood
Assignment Title: Critically evaluate the research findings about the impact of violent video games on the aggressiveness of children and adolescents
We are living in a digital era, in which most of our times is spent online than offline; children spend most of their times nowadays going to school and being online. It is interesting to note that a US national research indicated that 99% of the boys and 94% of the girls play video games and 70% of children aged 9-18 declare that they play violent video games, a fact which comes with no surprise since 89% of video games include somehow violent content (Whitaker & Bushman, 2009). The possible harmful impact of violent video games on children has even concerned the US Supreme Court through a 2010 case of sale and rental of violent video games (Willoughby et al., 2012). The media and the whole community have discussed the link between violent video games and the mass shootings in US schools, on the unfortunate occasion of the two shooters of the Columbine High School, who were revealed to be fanatic players of the first shooting horror video game ‘Doom’; certainly, these incidents need attention as mental disorders are involved. Although, as noted by Ferguson et al. 2015 on many occasions politicians and the media put forward the link of violent video games to mass shooters, it has been proved that this linking is an urban “myth” and is used in order to impress the public opinion. In this reality, we can’t help but wonder: which are the effects of violent video games on aggressiveness of children and adolescents? Are there only negative effects or are there also some positive effects reported by research? In this paper, I shall briefly discuss and analyze the effects of violent video games on aggressiveness of children and adolescents, scrutinizing research data on the issue.
The effects on aggressiveness of violent video games
Everyone understands and perceives the negative impact of violent video games and the aggressiveness that may cause on children and adolescents. The literature and the relevant research on the correlation between violent video games and the aggressiveness that the children and the adolescents present is divided; a portion supports and argues about the negative effects of violent video games, while another portion remains optimistic. The ones who support that violent video games cause aggressiveness and link them with negative effects (psychosocial or of other nature) are called “causationalists” since they hold violent video games as the “cause” of the above-mentioned negative impact. The opposite portion, that is the researchers who are rather optimist or sceptical support that the correlation between violent video games and aggressiveness is weak due to the limitations that methodological issues create (Ferguson et al., 2015).
The research literature has suggested that there could be no solid opinion about the effects of violent video games on the aggressiveness of children and adolescents due to a significant number of variables. Indeed, Adachi & Willoughby, 2010; Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010; Valadez & Ferguson, 2012 -as cited by Ferguson et al. 2015- have all highlighted that factors such as the difficulty of the game, the pace and the rhythm of the action, the degree of competiveness, or the complexity of taking the control of the game react and differentiate the effects of the violent video games. To prove these variables, Adachi & Willoughby 2011 created two experiments played on Xbox 360; in the first experiment they tested other criteria and not violent content using the “Hot Sauce Paradigm”: they asked the players to give a portion of hot sauce to a person they know she/he hates hot sauce, who will be forced to eat all this sauce in a taste test. In the second experiment they tested both violent content and competiveness. The results of these experiments proved that the competiveness was a cause for aggressive behaviour, rather than the violent content. However, Willoughby, Adachi & Good 2012, testing the effects of violent video games specifically on youth, found a small but existing correlation between playing violent content on video games and the aggressive behaviour. The study researched approximately 1,500 Canadian students attending classes 9-12, and a follow up analysis made by the authors suggested that the competiveness was more critical than the violent content.
A range of different research methods –as cited by Whitaker and Bushman (2009), including experiments into laboratories, natural or field experiments, as well as longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, strongly indicate that when it comes to violent video games in particular they could have an impact on the aggressiveness of people; playing video games with violent content is an important factor for presenting an aggressive behaviour. The effects are both short- and long-term; In the short-term changes three psychological processes are involved: the priming of aggressive cognitions and angry emotional reactions, mimicking of aggressive scripts included in the game and stimulation of physiological arousal caused by observing violent content, while in the long-term changes the three psychological processes that are involved are: observational learning, classical and operant conditioning of aggressive responses, and desensitization of emotional processes
The effects on aggressiveness of violent video games vs. watching violent content
Polman, de Castro and van Aken 2008 analyzed and examined the differential effects between watching and playing violent content in a laboratory setting regarding youth in the Netherlands of age 10-13. Their study indicated that boys acted more aggressively after playing violent content as compared to watching it, but it should be noted that there were found no significant differences between playing non-violent and violent games. The aggression of girls was not affected by the different conditions on video games. But, as Ferguson et al. 2015 aptly notice this study is quite limited in its interactivity; nobody watches video games to enjoy, the games are made to be played. Regarding the gender effect, it should be noted at this point that a recent study by Ferguson et al. (2016) suggests that girls are stressed by violent video games. As it is explained, girls tend not to choose violent video games, since it seems that this kind of games do not match their interests. It is quite characteristic that the authors note that girls are probably annoyed by these games, since they would not choose to play with them. Besides, most of the games are of sexist theme and girls play a second role.
The impact of violent video games may seem similar to the impact of violent content on television, but it is suggested that playing violent video games has a much more powerful effect and impact than watching violent content on television. The first reason is the interaction that a person experiences when playing violent video games. Watching television is a pathetic and non-reactive process in which take part only some of the human senses. On the contrary, playing violent video games involves most of the human senses and the fact that the one who’s playing feels that she/he has the control through the control joystick she/he holds in the hands.
Another fact mentioned in the study of Whitaker and Bushman (2009) is that the person who’s playing is identifying with the character of the game and at least for some time she/he feels like she/he actually is this character. This happens especially in the case that the game involves a first person shooter, where the player acquires the same visual perspective as the hero; in the case that the game is third person, the distance is bigger between the player and the character.
On the other hand, when someone watches violent content on television she/he may identify with the violent character, but she/he may feel repulsion for this character. The chances are open and the pathetic style of watching television deviates the risk of identifying with passion as in the case that someone is acting just like the character. A final and decisive remark that the above-mentioned study (Whitaker and Bushman 2009) makes is that violent video games reward the player who shoots well with points and awards. This means that the most violent you are, the most successful you get and you advance to the next level. Based on these findings the most concerning fact is that people tend to link success and winning with something good, at least unconsciously. A child and an adolescent, who are not yet mature and cannot tell what is good and what is bad in all terms, may become confused and mix in their minds, which is really good or bad. A research tested the theory analyzed above by having some participant boys playing violent video games and some boys watching the violent video games. The results revealed that the effects on aggression were stronger for boys who played the game than for the ones who just watched (Polman et al., 2009).
The short and the long time effects
Since rather recently research suggested that playing violent video games temporarily increases aggressive behaviour and cognition (the knowledge and understanding gained through experiences), and psychosocial arousal. Willoughby et al. 2012 conducted a study based on this specific aspect; they surveyed adolescents in Ontario, Canada each year of high school (grades 9-12) about the association between playing video games and aggressive behaviour. The results of this study reveal that adolescents who played violent video games presented aggressive behaviour over time as compared to adolescents who played less such games.
Research (as cited in Whitaker and Bushman 2009) suggests that violent video games have both short and long time effects on aggressive behaviour. It is indicated by experimental studies that when someone plays violent video games directly acquires aggressiveness in her/his reactions and overall behaviour. What actually happens in these experimental studies is rather simple: they expose players to violent video games for a short period of time, which usually lasts from fifteen to thirty minutes and then measure aggression. Aggression is measured by a reaction of the player: they ask from the player to explode an opponent while making a loud noise through headphones. It is reported that players who play violent video games blast their opponents in a much louder way than the players who play non-violent video games. Additionally, longitudinal studies offer other occasions of presented aggressiveness from players of violent video games in incidents of everyday life. For example, some studies have revealed that these players tend to have more arguments with teachers and they are more often involved in physical fights. Other longitudinal studies (Anderson et al., 2008) suggest that the effect of violent video games on aggressive behaviour generalizes across very different cultures, such the American and the Japanese ones. Another characteristic, which is also known as “hostile attribution bias” is that the ones who play violent video games have aggressive thoughts; they interpret simple facts with aggression and they are reported to face life in a more hostile manner, after playing games with violent content. “Hostile attribution bias” is possible to lead not only to aggressive behaviour, but additionally to peer rejection, that is related to many negative outcomes (Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, 2007). The overall behaviour after playing such games is reported to be more anxious and hostile, which can progressively lead to an aggressive personality. The same conclusions about the hostile attribution bias are reached in the German research of Mollër and Krahè (2009) regarding adolescent boys, secondary school students, aged 13-16 years old.
Another interesting aspect that Whitaker and Bushman 2009 report is the psychosocial effect experienced by players. The impact is noticed not only in thoughts, but also in the body of the player of a violent video game, who presents increased heart rate and high levels of skin conductance. The other side of the coin is the negative impact that playing violent video games has on the prosocial behaviour of the players. By “prosocial behaviour” is meant the probability to help, to benefit other people with voluntary acts and studies indicate that the ones who play violent video games are less likely to present such a behaviour. If one puts together the “Male Warior Hypothesis” (Stürmer and Snyder, 2010), in which competion and conflict are involved, the effects of violent video games on aggressiveness of boys is even more obvious.
You et al. 2015 researched the mediating effects of personality traits regarding 1,242 Korean students attending 8th and 9th grade. The authors analyzed the ways in which emotional characteristics of adolescents, like the empathy, emotional regulation, and behavioural self-control mediate the correlation between playing violent video games and aggressiveness. Their study indicated that violent video games have a direct impact on aggressiveness and an important indirect effect on prosocial behaviours of adolescents. Empathy and behavioural self-control actually mediated the relation between the violent content on video games and social behaviours.
Last but not least, each culture presents violence in a different way; the total amount of violence may be similar but, the violent content e.g. on Japanese television is not similar with the one on the US television. Anderson et al. 2010 cite that on Japanese television exposes the effects of violence in a strong way, with vivid images and scenes, which may be a reason explaining why the impact of TV violence on aggressiveness in Japan is smaller than the one reported in the USA. Another interesting aspect cited in the study of Anderson et al. 2010 is that in Israel there was a difference in aggression as a consequence of violent content on television between children in urban areas and children raised in a communal way of life in rural areas: the impact was much more stronger regarding urban children.
Are there any positive effects?
Research suggests that playing video games in general (not violent ones) can also have some positive effects, such as pain distraction and relaxation during painful medical procedures, or coordination and spatial awareness and cognition, or that video games they can actually be a powerful teaching tool (Warburton & Braunstein, 2012). Ferguson talks about the “moral panic” that imposes to the public moral beliefs through the tactic of fear. Usually, elders or politicians, religious figures or advocacy circles may contribute to the building of moral panic and violent video games is an issue that has been many times demonized as something “bad” by definition.
Ferguson 2010 marks and highlights the hook of the moral panic and strongly questions the research results about the effects of violent video games on the aggressiveness of youth. Specifically, Ferguson 2010 mentions that methodological and theoretical problems pose limitations to the interpretation that has been made by research literature. In this respect, he states that first of all many of the aggression measures used are invalid. Indeed, in many studies there have been used aggression measures, which by no means represent aggression in reality. Another variable that Ferguson 2010 stresses is the “third variable” effect, by which he means variables such as gender, family violence, genetics and others that possibly have an effect between the aggression presented by youth that plays violent video games. For example, boys are generally more aggressive than girls and generally play more violent video games than girls and in this framework any bivariate correlation covers the gender effect. Thirdly, many media effects researchers ignore even their own work and as such there is citation bias. Moreover, there is some publication bias, as studies with statistically significant effects –even though they may be rather small in practical respect- are usually more likely to be published. Also, the effects that studies reveal are very small in effect, ranging from 0 to 2,5% and there is a mismatch between playing violent video games and violent crimes for both adults and youth.
Ferguson 2010 questions even the big threat that everybody believes that is inherent in all video games, violent and non-violent ones: the social isolation of the player, who passes her/his time in front of a screen in a virtual world apart from reality. The author argues that the interaction through online games offers social involvement to players and that actually players of first person shooter games like the game ‘Medal of Honor’ can be played against or in cooperation with other players. The educational use of violent video games has not yet been research in depth, however the author stresses that games such as ‘ReMission’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ have promising educational aspects.
Video games are the modern reality; one cannot ignore them and cannot exclude them from youth’s life. Violent video games are being played everyday by a large portion of children and adolescents and the effects that they may have on their aggressiveness has been addressed by researchers. The negative effects of the violent video games have been mentioned by many studies and rather recently a few studies have also mentioned the possible positive effects. I believe that from the research I have scrutinized it is clear that there may be a negative impact on youth’s aggressiveness by playing violent video games, however the results show small size effects or they are mixed and methodological and theoretical problems such as the ones mentioned in part two of this paper question the degree of this impact.
Anderson et al., Longitudinal Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression in Japan and the United States, Pediatrics, Volume 122, Issue 5
Anderson, Gentile and Buckley, Violent Video Games Effects on Children and Adolescents, Theory, Research and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007
Ferguson, Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good?, Review of General Psychology 2010, Vol. 14, No. 2, 68–81
Ferguson et al., Digital poison? Three studies examining the influence of violent video games on youth, Computers in Human Behavior 50 (2015) 399–410
Ferguson et al., Violent Video Games Don’t Increase Hostility in Teens, but They Do Stress Girls Out, Psychiatr Q (2016) 87:49–56
Hanneke Polman, Brain Orobio de Castro & Marcel A.G. van Aken, Experimental Study of the Differential Effects of Playing Versus Watching Violent Video Games on Children’s Aggressive Behavior, 34 AGGRESSIVE BEHAV. 256,262 (2008) as cited in Whitaker & Bushman 2009.
Mollër and Krahè, Exposure to Violent Video Games and Aggression in German Adolescents: A Longitudinal Analysis, AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR, Volume 35, pages 75–89 (2009)
Stürmer and Snyder, eds., The psychology of prosocial behavior, Group processes, intergroup relations, and helping, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Warburton & Braunstein (Eds.) Growing Up Fast and Furious: Reviewing the Impacts of Violent and Sexualised Media on Children, (Chapter pp. 56-84). Annandale, NSW, Australia: The Federation Press, 2012
Whitaker & Bushman, A Review of the Effects of Violent Video Games on Children and Adolescents, 66 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 1033 (2009)
Willoughby et al., A Longitudinal Study of the Association Between Violent Video Game Play and Aggression Among Adolescents, Developmental Psychology 2012, Vol. 48, No. 4, 1044–1057
You et al, Impact of violent video games on the social behaviors of adolescents: The mediating role of emotional competence, School Psychology International r2015, Vol. 36(1) 94–111