Dear Mr. Dad: My son loves video games and spends a ton of time playing on them. Some are sports games, but others are fairly violent war-related games. I’ve heard the warnings about violent games breeding violent behavior, and I’m worried. Should I be?
A: I certainly understand why you’re worried. Every time a new game hits the shelves, alarm bells start ringing all over the country. It sometimes seems that the entire city of Washington, DC is filled with politicians or pundits who have tried to connect video games to real-world violence. It’s a sure-fire way to gain political points and a reputation for moral crusading. But as with most crusades, the reality is more complex.
Interestingly, hysteria over new entertainments has a much longer than you’d probably guess. Plato is on record 2,500 years ago complaining about the addition of a sixth hole to the five-hole flute. The resulting musical scale would cause a disruption in the rules of music, he said, which in turn would cause children to disregard ALL rules and laws. He assured his readers and anyone else who would listen that the result would be nothing less than destroying Western civilization in its crib.
Civilization somehow survived the six-hole flute, dime novels, the nickelodeon, Elvis, “talkies,” heavy metal music, and any number of other entertainments, all of which were feared as the moral destroyers of their times. The same is now true for video games.
The truth is that it’s pretty hard to establish a solid link between video games and the tendency to engage in violence in the real world. Many of the studies on this topic are deeply flawed. But one recent study by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, the husband-wife team who founded the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, is well-designed, compelling, and above all, reassuring.
Kutner and Olson studied 1,300 middle-school video gamers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Unlike many other researchers, they studied children in their real-world settings and family context. And they discovered that the link between violence in video games and violent or antisocial behaviors is blown way out of proportion. What’s more, they found that many children can and do use video games—even those with some level of violence—to reinforce certain social skills, release stress, and relax. Bottom line? There’s no need to panic. If you’re interested in exploring this further, Kutner and Olson’s book, Grand Theft Childhood, is a great read. Other authors, including James Paul Gee and Marc Prensky do a great job of exploring the many benefits kids get from playing video games.
For example, a couple of years ago, James Rosser, the doctor in charge of laproscopic surgery training at a major teaching hospital in New York, found that doctors who had played videogames earlier in their lives made up to forty percent fewer mistakes in surgery! Rosser now has his doctors warm up before surgery by playing video games for half an hour.
The real problem with video games comes up when they start monopolizing a child’s time. The solution? Create and enforce game-playing rules in your household. Keep screen time within reasonable limits and watch more for obsessive or antisocial behaviors in your child than in the games. If you don’t see any, relax a little and let him enjoy the downtime and enjoyment that reasonable video gaming provides.
If you do notice any worrisome behavior, don’t be too quick to blame the video games. Talk to your pediatrician or school counselor to see what other issues might be in play.