The Effects of Video Games on Children
Over the 30 years since the introduction of video games, "gaming" has grown in popularity with people of all ages. About 1/3 of adults play video games, and by high school, 9 out of 10 children participate. Video game types include arcade, computer, smart phone, tablet and home console systems such as PlayStation and Xbox. Global video game market revenue, including mobile games on smart phones and tablets, was estimated at $66 billion in 2013: more revenue than movies and DVDs.
Many children and adolescents spend large amounts of time playing video games and over time, as the computing power of home computers and consoles has increased, video games have become more sophisticated, realistic, and often, more graphically violent. With children playing video games for increasing amounts of time, parents, educators, physicians, and researchers are increasingly concerned the impact of gaming on children.
Can the effects of video games on children be positive?
Some observers emphasize the positive effects of video games. There are games designed to be educational or merely entertaining. It has also been noted that in many video games, the skills required to win involve abstract and high level thinking. Some of the mental and physical skills claimed to be enhanced by video games include: ability to follow instructions, problem solving and logic, creativity, hand-eye coordination, spatial skills, planning, quick thinking, accuracy, concentration, teamwork when playing with others, and even developing reading and math skills as young gamers push themselves to read to get instructions, follow storylines of games, and get information from the game texts. There are studies that suggest gaming improves brain functioning as measured by gain in gray matter volume.
Other positive effects attributed to video games include bonding as parents and children play together, an introduction to computer technology and the online world, and increased self-confidence and self-esteem that comes with game mastery. Some video games can increase the amount of a child's exercise by requiring physical activity, for example, Dance Revolution and Nintendo Wii Fit. Video games are fun and have the potential to make learning more enjoyable. When used for educational purposes, colors, animation, and interactivity may enhance learning motivation and persistence.
Violent video games are theorized by some to act as a cathartic release of pent-up anger, aggression and frustration, and therefore could provide a positive outlet for these impulses, the same way as sports do. This use of video games to manage emotions came up repeatedly in one study conducted with focus groups of young adolescent boys. A typical comment was, "If I had a bad day at school, I'll play a violent video game, and it just relieves all my stress."
Proponents of video games also point out that playing video games is safer than teens doing drugs, consuming alcohol, joy riding, and other high-risk behaviors in the real world. In fact, increases in video game sales and trends in violent crime have gone in opposite directions. As violent video games proliferated, youth violent crime declined. The number of violent youth offenders fell by more than half between 1994 and 2010, to 224 per 100,000 of the population, according to government statistics, while video game sales have more than doubled since 1996. One study reported, "We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes."
But what about negative effects of video games on children?
Gaming critics acknowledge that while some games have educational content, games connect to the Internet, which can expose children and adolescents to the hazards of connecting to unknown adults and peers. Information on video gaming provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that many of the most popular games emphasize negative themes and promote:
- the killing of people or animals
- the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol
- criminal behavior, disrespect for authority and the law
- sexual exploitation and violence toward women
- racial, sexual, and gender stereotypes
- foul language, obscenities, and obscene gestures
Research has raised concerns about the effect on young people of excessive exposure to violent video games because studies have shown that children can become desensitized to the horror of violence, accept violence as a way to handle problems, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior after exposure to violence. Studies generally agree that violent video games stir hostile urges and mildly aggressive behavior. Studies have also shown that the more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children.
Some video games teach kids the wrong values. Women are often portrayed as weaker characters that are helpless or sexually provocative. Violent behavior, vengeance and aggression are rewarded. Negotiating and other nonviolent solutions are often not options. The American Psychological Association says playing violent games correlates to children being less caring and helpful toward their peers.
In a Joint Statement (2000) before the Congressional Public Health Summit, a number of American medical associations, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, cautioned parents about violence in the media and its negative effect on children. The report states that exposure to violent media can elevate aggressive feelings and thoughts, especially in children.
Some evidence suggests that when children and adolescents become overly involved and even obsessed with or even addicted to videogames, the time spent gaming can lead to:
- poor social skills
- time away from family time, schoolwork, and other hobbies
- lower grades and reading less
- exercising less, and becoming overweight
Of particular concern is the fear that video games will lead to violent crime, like murder, rape, assault, or even worse a Columbine, Newtown or Aurora type massacre. Fortunately, these are rare events and although the perpetrators of these other massacres were video gamers, it is unclear if exposure to computer game violence gave impetus to their rampages.
Research suggests that parents have an important role to play in monitoring and moderating content and use of video games.
Children whose parents limited the amount of time they could play and also used the video game ratings to limit the content of the games do better in school. As with many aspects of a child's life, parents need to set limits, for example: allowing video game playing for one hour after all homework is finished. Parents may also need to encourage the child to participate in other activities such as reading, sports, music, hobbies and spending time with family and friends. Parental monitoring of the content of video games is facilitated by evaluations provided by the The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
Established in 1994, by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), the ESRB rates over 1,000 games per year with regard to the amount of violence, sex, controversial language, and substance abuse in a game. Based on its developed guidelines, the ESRB then gives an age recommendation and content descriptor to each game submitted. The following are the rating symbols currently in use, according to the ESRB website.
- Early Childhood (EC) Content should be suitable for children 3 years and older and contain no objectionable material.
- Everyone (E) Content suitable for persons ages 6 and older. The game may contain minimal violence and some "comic mischief."
- Teen (T) Content suitable for persons ages 13 and older. Content is more violent than (E) rating and contains mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.
- Mature (M) Content suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Content definitely has more mature sexual themes, intense violence and stronger language.
- Adults Only (AO) Content suitable only for adults and may contain graphic sex and/or violence. Adult Only products are not intended for persons under the age of 18.
- Rating Pending (RP) Game has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting a final rating.
The ESRB web site (http://www.esrb.org/index-js.jsp) provides details about the rating system, and gives the rating of individual games.
In addition to the unease about violent and other inappropriate content of video games centers, much of the concern about video games relates to excessive use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children not spend more than one to two hours per day in front of all electronic screens, including TV, DVDs, videos, video games (handheld, console, or computer), and computers (for non-academic use). This means seven to fourteen hours per week total.
The average school-age child far exceeds this recommendation and spends over 37 hours a week in front of a screen. Of this, total TV accounts for about 24 hours/week and among elementary and middle-school populations, girls play video games for an average of about 5.5 hours/week and boys average 13 hours/week. Even preschoolers aged two to five play an average of 28 minutes/day.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (http://www.aacap.org/App_
has suggested the following strategies to help children enjoy video games and avoid problems:
- checking the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings to learn about the game's content.
- selecting appropriate games—both in content and level of development.
- playing videogames with their children to experience the game's content.
- setting clear rules about game content and playing time, both in and outside of
- strongly warning children about potential serious dangers of Internet contacts and
relationships while playing games online.
- talking with other parents about your family's video game rules.
- remembering that you are a role model for your children – including video games
you play as an adult.
Other recommendations for parents include:
- Do not install video game equipment in your child's bedroom.
- Monitor, supervise and discuss all of your child's media consumption – video games, television, movies, and the Internet.
According to Dr. Douglas Gentile, "The conclusion I draw from the accumulated research is that the question of whether video games are 'good' or 'bad' for children is oversimplified. Playing a violent game for hours every day could decrease school performance, increase aggressive behaviors, and improve visual attention skills. Instead, parents should recognize that video games can have powerful effects on children, and should therefore set limits on the amount and content of games their children play. In this way, we can realize the potential benefits while minimizing the potential harms." (http://www.pedsforparents.com/articles/2791.shtml)
Resources and Links
Information and portions of text used in this essay have been derived from the following sources:
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation (http://www.pamf.org/parenting-teens/general/media-web/videogames.html)
American Psychology Association http://www.apa.org/
The National Institute on Media and the Family http://www.parentfurther.com/technology-media
Children Now http://www.childrennow.org/index.php/
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002a). "Media violence and societal violence." Science, 295, 2377-2378.
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002b). "Media violence and the American Public revisited." American Psychologist, 57, 448-450.
Davison, W. P. (1983). "The third-person effect in communication." Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1-15.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1973). On the psychology of prediction. Psychological Review, 80, 237–251.
Pollard Sacks, D., Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2011). Do violent video games harm children? Comparing the scientific amicus curiae "experts" in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. Northwestern University Law Review: Colloquy, 106, 1-12. http://colloquy.law.northwestern.edu/main/2011/05/do-violent-video-games-harm-children-comparing-the-scientific-amicus-curiae-experts-in-brown-v-enter.html.
Steinfeld, J. (1972). Statement in hearings before Subcommittee on Communications of Committee on Commerce (United States Senate, Serial #92-52, pp. 25–27). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Bushman, B. & Anderson, C. (2002). Violent Video Games and Hostile Expectations: A Test of the General Aggression Model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1679-1686.
Gentile, D. A. & Anderson, C. A. (2003). Violent video games: The newest media violence hazard. In D. A. Gentile (Ed.), Media violence and children. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing.
Gentile, D. A., Lynch, P., Linder, J. & Walsh, D. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 5-22.
Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children: Congressional Public Health Summit. (July 26, 2000.) Available: http://www.aap.org/advocacy/ releases/jstmtevc.htm.
Walsh, D. (2000). Interactive violence and children: Testimony submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate. (March 21, 2000.) Available: http://commerce.senate.gov/ hearings/0321wal1.pdf.
Back to top