Brain Hacking, Part 2: Could Violent Video Games Really Make Your Kid More Aggressive?

Isn’t it interesting how we decry violence starting when our kids are very young, and bristle at the thought of our children hurting other children, or being hurt by others, yet at the same time, we accept and even celebrate violence in our entertainment? Is it ironic that kids and parents alike find it entertaining and even fun to watch and even participate in?

In some media, violence is a necessary evil required to resolve a conflict that defines a compelling story line. But some media, such as some video games, exist for the sole purpose of not only immersing the user in that violence but glorifying and rewarding its user’s aggression. As we learn more about the brain-hacking power of stimulating media, what affect can this rewarding, immersive virtual violence have on teens’ still developing brains?

There is actually strong evidence that exposure to violent entertainment does induce functional changes in the brain, and therefore makes children more likely to engage in real life violence. In a study done at the University of Indiana, randomly selected young adults played a violent video game at home for 10 hours/week. (The average American teen male plays 16-18 hours/week). After only one week, they showed decreased brain activity on fMRI brain scans in areas that regulate emotions and aggression. In other words, even moderate amounts of game playing made the brain less able to control emotions leading to anger, hostility and aggression.

This effect lead study participants to react more aggressively to a hypothetical situation after playing a violent first-person shooter game for only a few minutes. This effect was seen over and over when subjects were tested several times.

This also plays out in real-life situations. A study published in Pediatrics in 2008 followed large groups of kids throughout a school year. The children who played more violent video games early in the school year were more likely to act aggressively later in the school year. This was seen independent of whether or not they had previously shown aggressive tendencies- in other words, even kids that were calm and docile by nature became more aggressive after playing violent video games. This suggests that while there are other things that may make kids behave violently like background, upbringing and culture, playing violent video games is a powerful instigator of violent behavior.

Numerous professional organizations have supported a link between violence in media and real-life violence in children. Scientists have been warning us for years, even before we had ultra-realistic video games, but even more so recently. The following professional organizations have issued statements over the years drawing on the “growing and nearly unanimous body of evidence” (AAP, 2000) that supports a relationship between the consumption of violence in media and violent behavior in children.

In recent years, the AAP has released updated statements in 2009 and 2016 recognizing that ultra-realistic video games and virtual reality have amplified the effect that TV and yesterday’s video games had. The increase in aggressive behavior in children is even greater after engaging in such “immersive” media than “passive” media.

Consider this very strong statement from the AAP:

“Research has associated exposure to media violence with a variety of physical and mental health problems for children and adolescents, including aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, fear, depression, nightmares, and sleep disturbances. More than 3500 research studies have examined the association between media violence and violent behavior; all but 18 have shown a [significant] relationship. Consistent and strong associations between media exposure and increases in aggression have been found…”

But this part is the real kicker:

“The strength of the correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior found on meta-analysis is greater than that of calcium intake and bone mass, lead ingestion and lower IQ, condom non-use and sexually acquired human immunodeficiency virus infection, or environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer—associations clinicians accept and on which preventive medicine is based without question.” ( AAP Statement “Media and Violence”, 2000 )

These studies aren’t limited to the medical field. An FBI investigation done in 2000 reported media violence as a significant risk factor for the occurrence of school shootings. The Federal Communications Commission released a report in 2007 agreeing with the Surgeon General’s assessment that consumption of violent television media makes children more likely to engage in violent behavior and urged lawmakers to restrict television violence.

Knowing that violence in media can hack our children’s brains into becoming more aggressive, is it just a coincidence that school shootings are increasing nation-wide, and that violence is on the rise within elementary schools?

Certainly there are many other factors that lead to violence, such as pre-existing mental illness, social rejection and bullying, access to weapons, the existence of interpersonal violence in the home and neighborhood, societal culture etc. However, a 2009 AAP statement puts the contribution of media violence into startling perspective: “Playing violent video games has been found to account for a 13% to 22% increase in adolescents’ violent behavior; by comparison, smoking tobacco accounts for 14% of the increase in lung cancer.”

The above evidence begs the question: Why are we still debating whether or not violence in media matters?

“The weight of scientific evidence has been convincing to pediatricians, with more than 98% of pediatricians… expressing the personal belief that media violence affects children’s aggression. Yet, the entertainment industry, the American public, politicians, and parents all have been reluctant to accept these findings and to take action. The debate should be over.” (AAP Statement, “Media Violence”, updated 2009)

What are parents to do? Whether or not we can or should restrict movie or game makers’ first amendment rights is beyond the scope of this discussion. But I believe we do need to rethink the public health consequences of supporting games like Grand Theft Auto, in which players steal, kill and rape?

Parents can and should set limits on their children’s consumption of media violence. Children under 8 years old are especially vulnerable because they have a hard time discerning between fantasy and reality. For older kids and teens, parents should think twice about allowing their children to play violent first person shooter games like Fortnite, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, BlackOps, Halo etc. What are we training our kids for with these games?

In contrast, studies have also shown that pro-social video games influence children’s behaviors towards greater kindness, empathy and helpfulness. For a list of fun pro-social games, click here.

When violence is viewed in movies or television, parents should have a discussion about the negative effects of violence that are not portrayed. For children and teens that are struggling with emotional problems and anger, parents should ask themselves how their child’s media “diet” may be affecting them.

If we care about brain hacking, which is the power of screens, electronic devices and the media to influence the thinking, emotions and behavior of its users, violence in media is a crucial consideration that must not be taken lightly. What are we feeding our children’s minds?

%d bloggers like this: