The Effects of Violent Video Games on Kids

videogamesI’ve got two boys, 10 going on 16 and 5 going on 5. Two unique, beautiful, sometimes challenging, sometimes easy boys who quite naturally love killing things.

Zombies, Indians (old school, bows and arrows etc), orcs, baddie knights, storm troopers, all sorts. They all get killed in a variety of ways most days after school and get quite a battering on weekends too. Sometimes in their bedrooms, often via toy light sabres knocking cups over in the living room, terrorising the dog and invariably leading to the arena of death that is the trampoline.

And I’m not worried a jot about that because, to my mind, that’s just plain normal. Bit dull even, all boys do that and I’d be far more worried if they were sitting alone in a corner, rocking back and forth, quietly muttering nursery rhymes and drawing lots of 6’s, all harmless and still and not at all murdery.

So what I’m saying as a parent is: yes, I’m fine with my boys pretending to commit murder.

Now obviously that sits under a vast umbrella of common sense surrounded by the notion that boys are designed that way. To explore, climb, fight a bit, pretend a lot and generally do all the active boy stuff that their burgeoning testosterone dictates for them beyond their restless control. I’m pretty confident it’s always been that way, playing soldiers, cowboys and Indians, being in gangs, scrapping, climbing over fences into places they shouldn’t be. I did all that, most of the boys I knew did that and for the most part I can’t see any correlation between that and what has or hasn’t turned out to be good or bad in any of our lives. Our choices are born of far more than that I’d say.

And I’ll tell you what else I did growing up in the 80’s, I played on my ZX Spectrum 48k with its rubber keyboard and connected cassette deck that may or may not load a game after 10 minutes of waiting. And I’ve dabbled in Playstations and Xbox’s and smartphone games and everything in between and so I’m confident that I’m familiar with the content of modern video games. I’m also familiar with how they’ve evolved from the monochrome, line drawn, 2D ‘action’ of Manic Minor to the visceral, neck stabbing, f-bomb drenched blood-letting that is the Call of Duty http://www.commonsensemedia.org/game-reviews/call-of-duty-black-ops-ii series.

And welcome to this new world of video games, my children. In you come, peer pressure and all, to this visual feast that most of your friends will be talking about and you desperately want to be a part of…

Recent years have seen the question “Do video games make children more violent?” Asked with increasing volume. There have been some gut wrenching tragedies (often in places where access to weapons is considerably easier) with unerring regularity and the link between some of these cases and video games is raised often.

Studies have been made and continue to be made and arguments on both sides make compelling cases.

For example, Craig Anderson is a professor and director at the Department of Psychology, Iowa State University. He has studied the effect of violent media on children and has convincing evidence that prolonged exposure to violent movies, literature and video games significantly increases aggressive tendencies in kids and teens. And he’s not the only one; there have been numerous studies that show a tendency towards ruder, more short tempered and aggressive behaviours after playing video games with violent or inappropriate content.

There are also plenty of cases against these effects but for me the more compelling evidence is in the former camp.

Regardless of what these studies tell us (which franky, seem to simply be confirming what lies in the gut of most concerned parents) we only need to watch our own children and their responses to make sensible parenting decisions right?

My eldest (10) has played games (and seen films) that are well beyond his years. He’s downloaded demos by himself, he’s seen and played them at friends houses and I’ve been as guilty as the next parent at thinking that a game ‘must be ok’ for him to have a go on. After all, all his friends are playing it and all those parents can’t be wrong can they?

Yes, actually, they can but we’ll come back to that.

Films I’m not quite so concerned with. I can judge my kids responses to things, relate to my own childhood experiences and feel confident that he knows right from wrong, reality from fantasy and can make sensible decisions about which elements can be dragged from the TV into imaginative playtime or his relationships with peers and adults. It’s a fine line but one, as parents, we have to learn to tread as we go. One size does not fit all.

But video games are much more immersive. That’s their point. At what can appear to be an exponential rate, they are getting better at creating this sense of immersion. They take the imagined, put the player at the centre and try to make the fantasy as realistic as possible for the gamer.

Both my experience of my kids exposure to these games and the studies I’ve read are more than enough for me to know that they are too much for them. And beyond the content clearly and often being inappropriate (as per the age restricting labels on the boxes!) they have a definite effect on their behaviours in the minutes, hours and days after playing them.

So what is the problem? Surely the simple answer is don’t let them play these games right?

Not quite. Just as the fact that the Young Ones was watched by just about every boy in my class made me want to watch it all the more (even though my mum was having none of it), so the fact that these games are clearly accessible to many boys of my son’s age (and younger!) makes it hard for him to accept that he can’t play them.

I had a conversation with the Headmistress at my children’s school just the other week about this. The problem seems to be:

  • Parents aren’t aware of the content in the games their kids are playing
  • Parents aren’t aware of just how far the immersive qualities of games have come since they were young
  • Older siblings/gamer dads leave their games lying about for curious little hands to have a go on
  • Parents often don’t even know their kids are playing these games at all

The answers seem to be straight forward then:

  • Check the ratings of the games your kids play
  • Check a site like http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ – An excellent resource for quickly figuring out whether a game or film is suitable for your little one (and for finding alternatives that are more acceptable)
  • Keep adult themed games tidied away just as you would with video nasties and be clear with older siblings that they aren’t to let the younger ones play games beyond their years.
  • Keep consoles out of bedrooms so you can keep an eye on what they’re playing

Where has the respect gone?

There’s a general problem these days with kids in terms of respect and good behaviour http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21895705 and we all know that the majority (not all) these problems arise most commonly from the role models they do (or don’t) get at home. I don’t believe this has anything to do class, separated families or any other single factor (even if studies suggest they are highly correlated to individual factors), I know families of all shapes and sizes and kids with varying degrees of respect and behaviour.

But I also know that if parents knew that their kids were playing games in which people were dropping F-bomb after C-bomb before stabbing somebody in the neck and then sleeping with a hooker in a parked car (an amalgamation of any GTA with any Call of Duty pretty much) they’d be horrified. And rightly so.

And it’s not bad parenting (it is sometimes, when parents know what their kids are doing but just don’t give a damn), it’s hard work being a parent, bloody hard work, even harder for a single parent juggling work, school runs and a million other jobs every day. Allowing them to sit in front of a video game for half an hour while you put the shopping away, or to keep them entertained on a snowy Saturday afternoon seems like a great idea, and it can be. But sometimes, if the games are inappropriate then it really isn’t.

So if you or a parent you know have some little fellas who like to spend a little Xbox or Playstation time (or you sometimes overhear the words ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’ dropped into their conversations with their mates, just make sure you’ve been through their collection and removed the 15’s and the 18’s.

Yes, arguments may ensue, yes you’ll be the worst parent in the world for a bit and no doubt will be ‘destroying their life’. But actually, you won’t, you’ll be an amazing parent who cares about them. And you know what? A little restricted video game access won’t kill them. It might actually make them happier, more imaginative in their play and friendlier and more more patient towards the people around them.

If you use a website like http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ you can use that to spark a conversation with them. So it becomes less of a “because I said so” conversation and more of a “This is why I don’t let you play this, here’s an alternative” type of chat.

What do I do with my kids?

Their mum and I kind of wing it. We have prolonged periods of time when we don’t allow video games at all. When respect, aggression or similar behaviours raise their heads they get an extended video game time out. We also make sure they only play games that are age appropriate and balance their ‘screen time’ (anything DS, movie, Xbox or screen related) with their ‘outside time’. We encourage time to just stare out the window and daydream (what’s wrong with a little boredom now and then? Isn’t that when imagination has time to kick in? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21895704), to read or just to play together. And when they fight? I’ve given up keeping them apart, I put them in a room together and tell them they’re staying there until they figure out how to get on. 10 minutes later they’re playing nicely again.

Sure, I have to have to odd awkward conversation with parents on play dates “Just to let you know, we don’t let H play games beyond his age and it would be great if he doesn’t while he’s playing with your kids..” etc. But that’s just the way it goes.

It’s not all plain sailing, far from it but that’s another story. But as far as video games go, the bottom line is stay informed, know what they’re playing and keep access time sensible. You won’t catch everything and you can’t censor the whole world (you’d never have time for anything else let’s face it!) but a bit of prep and they’re safe from the nasty stuff for just a bit longer.

I’d love to hear what you think about the effects of video games on kids. Do you see a difference when they’ve spent an afternoon shooting stuff? Do you find it hard to keep them away from more adult content?

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