By Richard Rende
This seemingly simple question does not have a simple answer. Here's why.
There are studies that report links between playing video games with violent content and measures of aggression. Many of these studies show small statistical associations - meaning that it is not highly predictive of aggressive behavior. In addition, many focus on kids' self-reports of their own aggressive behavior. While this is one valid way of measuring aggression, it is not the only way - which limits the take-home messages from these studies. And we all know that "association" (or correlation) is not the same thing as causation.
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Consider a recent well-designed study published in Developmental Psychology. The study authors reported that teen accounts of their frequency of playing violent video games were predictive of increases in their self-reported aggressive behavior over time. There were a number of statistical and measurement controls to ensure that this prediction was not due to "selection effects" - meaning that kids with higher levels of aggression at the start of the study were more drawn to violent video games - or the impact of other factors. But while this study provides evidence of a predictive link between playing violent video games and self-reported aggression, it doesn't give us the answer to the question many of us are asking now. Why not? Simply put, this study did not focus on violence, especially the type of extreme violence we are witnessing such as school shootings.
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Here's the bigger issue. Many kids play video games. Large percentages, at some point in time, play games with some violent content. Very few kids turn into mass murderers. Simply sorting through large samples of kids and trying to use statistical models to find the linkage between violent video game content to find the type of prediction we are looking for will be a daunting task. Indeed, after decades of research we are just seeing reports - like the one published in Developmental Psychology - that are providing clearer evidence of links between playing violent video games and aggression (which is a much more frequent behavior to study).
So where do we go from here?
Of course more research is necessary. But we have to think hard about the type of research we need - and the question we are asking. If we want to know more about aggression, there is a large platform from prior studies that can be built upon to provide better estimates of the impact of playing violent video games. This is certainly an area worth researching.
This approach, however, won't tell us much about violent behavior such as a mass shooting. We need new paradigms that can lay out other predisposing factors to violence - in terms of personality, social development, mental health - and large enough samples that can begin to explore if kids with these characteristics (many of which still need to be explicated) are more unduly influenced by playing violent video games. We also need to ask if it makes a difference if they have access to guns. We need to be willing to commit to an open-minded public health framework that will take on mental health, access to guns, and violent video game content in a comprehensive way if we are going to make any real headway. And, as always, this will need to be funded. Until all of this happens, we will not have a simple answer to the simple question we are asking.
This article first appeared on Parents.com.
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