Television, Video Games, and Child Development
by Chris Hibbard
Television, Video Games, and Child Development
For nearly five decades now, practically since the inception of the television itself, there has been exhaustive debate and discussion over the impact of television on our children, our students, and our family dynamics. In 1972 the Surgeon General of the United States issued a report arguing that television violence increases aggressiveness among viewers, an opinion that has been frequently repeated by congressional committees in the following 35 years.
In the last fifteen years, this argument has been renewed in the light of such tragic instances of violent teenage behaviour like school shootings, teenage murder-suicides, and incidents like Calgary’s recent ‘pickaxe murder’. The statistics on viewing habits alone are nearly enough to promote such correlations. The average television set in the U.S. is on for five or six hours per day, with young children spending more time watching television than engaged in any activity other than sleep – including school work and family time. Researchers estimate that by the time they finish Grade 6, 80 per cent of our children have witnessed 100,000 acts of television violence. By high school graduation, they will have witnessed 18,000 television murders.
It should be acknowledged that a large portion of these violent acts come in the form of cartoon-violence – in which the likes of the Looney Tunes’ Roadrunner and Coyote or The Simpsons’ Itchy and Scratchy commit vicious acts of mayhem against each other – only to recover and fight to another day. But with our current fixation on prime-time dramas like C.S.I. and Law and Order, there is no shortage of graphic and realistic violence in the mix as well.
The foundation of the TV-as-catalyst argument is this: since fewer ‘characters’ are punished for acting violently in movies and television shows, children may come to believe that such behaviours are justified and excusable; an effective way to solve problems. Televised violence leads young viewers to believe that violence is both common and inevitable, and leads to desensitization. Each violent episode witnessed on TV produces a diminished emotional response, until vivid depictions of beatings, torture, and murder no longer produce much of a reaction among viewers – numbed to the pain and suffering of others.
It is reported repeatedly that after watching violent programming, children are more likely to act violently than those that watched benign or gentle programming. The last three decades of research paint a clear correlational picture. The viewing of violence is linked, at least on a short-term basis, to imitative violence, increased aggressive behaviour and feelings of hostility. It is also linked to a willingness to deliver painful stimuli upon others and an acceptance of violence as a solution to problems.
On the other side of the proverbial fence are those that claim that the artificial circumstances created for these studies are so different from the way children view television at home that it is impossible to generalize and extrapolate across the divide to real-life. In the real world, these proponents argue that the violent episodes on TV are interspersed with nonviolent material (advertisements, character development and plot-progression). As well, children often watch television with other family members or friends who may act as a buffer, dampening the effects by ‘sharing’ and proximity alone.
Other arguments counteracting the study results claim that many of the so-called aggressive behaviours displayed by children who are test-subjects could be interpreted as playful behaviour rather than aggression. Still others argue that attitudes about the acceptability of aggression are determined by cultural norms, personality and gender differences, poverty, parental involvement and even geography.
Much aggressive behaviour is learned through social observation and learned activities involving reward and punishment. By expanding on this logical statement, Americans are seen as leaning more towards violence than Canadians, and the Americans in the southern states even more so than their northern counterparts. Either way, it is no longer argued that media exposure has an effect on how children feel and think. This is accepted as fact. The argument between the two camps focuses around causation. If it is found that TV viewing habits at age 8 can predict violent behaviour and criminal activity at age 30, we can not definitively prove that this will be so. Not all of those who view violence on television will become aggressive in later life. Perhaps those who watch excessive amounts of television have diminished opportunity to develop their social skills, and subsequently are lacking in ‘life skills’ in later life. While television may be one factor that promotes a mental state capable of acting on violent urges and impulses, it can not be considered the only one.
So you can see that much of this discussion has been clouded in controversy. For every report or study that is made public detailing the detrimental effects of television on our children, there are two others released disputing the results of the experiment – claiming improper methods or variables, or a too-vague discrepancy between correlation and causation. The amount of material regarding these issues is vast and overwhelming. While most of the findings certainly point to a connection between violence in the media and violence in our youth – it has yet to be, and likely will never be, proven to be ‘the only’ contributing factor. Much like when it comes to the impact of television on relationships, school work, and obesity – there are just too many variables to be ruled out, over and above the television itself.
A relative newcomer to the controversy and debate are video games. On a most general level, video games allow children to actively engage with their televisions or computers. Rather than being merely stimulated on a visual and auditory level, video game players interact with the pictures, stories, and environments that they are immersed in. They control the movements of the characters and engage in active problem solving. Many games engage participant in a number of cognitive skills, including divided attention, spatial navigation and symbolic representation. Many games stimulate emotional response and require gamers to identify letters, matching colours and shapes, and making elementary arithmetic calculations. Some proponents of video games suggest that they are an entertaining way of increasing children’s hand-eye coordination and attention to detail, while introducing children to technology.
Statistics Canada reports that one in ten Canadian households regularly rent or purchase video games, and households with children made up three-quarters of this figure in 1998. Interestingly enough, households in the highest-income bracket represented just over one-third of the consumer market for video games, implying that games are certainly not just popular with the upper echelon of society. It is thought that if a similar StatsCan report were to be released today, it would show that these figures have jumped substantially. (STATSCAN, #41, 1998)
The concern with our ‘new’ video games is well-founded. Since the simple, black and white tennis video game Pong was released in 1972, our video game industry has come a long way. From Pong through Pacman, through the introduction of small ‘console’ systems like Nintendo and Playstation, to a new breed of violent video games, the times they have changed. Starting in the late 1980’s, the video game market has seen a remarkable increase in violent games released. Street Fighter led to Mortal Kombat, Doom led to Halo 3, and Tomb Raider led to Grand Theft Auto. All of these games involve combat, violence, and death to one degree or another, and all were bestsellers of their time.
Just last week, a new video game called Manhunt 2 was deemed so brutally violent, gory, profane and sexual that it was banned from release in the U.K. and the U.S. Manhunt 2’s plot revolves around the ‘hero’ – a convicted felon who escapes from his maximum security cell and proceeds to tear other characters to pieces with a variety of weapons – on the first ‘introductory’ level alone.
The creators of the game, Rockstar Games, made similar headlines five years ago with their game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which your character could sleep with a prostitute, murder innocent people, and use explosives to keep the police at bay. It is obvious that games such as these are calculated to be as violent as possible – marketed to a specific audience who will appreciate such nasty elements.
These games are the equivalent of R-Rated films, and with their Video Game Rating rank of Mature, are supposedly unavailable to children younger than 17. In fact, the biggest market for video games today is men between the ages of 21-35. Many of these men are the fathers of young children who may then be exposed to them in a secondary capacity. Some of these men claim that video games allowed them to get their aggression out (as well as their testosterone) without ever having to raise their voice or leave their couch, implying that there is an element of non-violent ‘release’ when it comes to video game role-playing and a clear understanding of the separation between reality and fantasy. Needless to say, it is obvious that we have come a long way since the release of Pong.
Because of the tremendous rapidity with which video games have evolved, the research into their effects is losing the race. Video game research is less readily available than is that regarding television and film. In fact, most of the prolific studies that have been undertaken in the last 20 years have been taken on by the same recurring individuals, whose studies relate many of the same results.
Dr. Don Shifrin, a committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Media Violence Board, summarized a few of these studies by saying “video games can lead to short-term desensitization to the value of human life and that for children seven and under, may make them perceive the world as a violent and mean place.” He also comments that some video games may teach children “logic, persistence and patience” and offers that the letter-coded rating system “gives no real indication of what is going on in the game.” (Enoch #36, 2007)
Early video game concerns revolved around physical phenomenon, such as epilepsy and lack of exercise. These have been replaced by new concerns about their interference in social relationships due their use of solitary engagement. There are also great concerns regarding parental supervision, or the lack thereof, when it comes to the content children are exposed to. In 1998, the violent ‘first-person shooter’ game called Duke Nukem (a game in which the player ‘sees’ through the main characters eyes), had been witnessed or played by 80 per cent of junior high students. Only 1 in 50 parents of these children had ever heard of the same game.
Considering all of these facts and figures, it certainly seems reasonable to assume that if passively watching violence in movies and on television causes aggression, then actively participating in video game violence should have an even greater effect. But what we assume is reasonable is not always correct, even if the role of systematic research is executed with great care and consideration.
In a perspective released by psychologists Craig Anderson, PhD. and Douglas Gentile, PhD., it was found that violent video games may have even stronger effects on children’s aggression than previously thought. These games are highly engaging and interactive, they reward violent behavior, and game-playing children repeat these behaviors over and over as they play. Anderson and Gentile’s 2004 report emphasizes how important these three factors are when it comes to learning. Their research intimates that playing violent games is related to being less caring and helpful towards peers.
This is a big deal when one considers that our boys spend an average of 13 hours per week playing video games.
The report by Anderson and Gentile also stresses the important role that parents play in their children’s lives. “Psychologists have found that when parents limit the amount of time as well as the types of games their children play, children are less likely to show aggressive behaviors. Other research suggests that active parental involvement in children’s media usage-including discussing the inappropriateness of violent solutions to real life conflicts, reducing time spent on violent media, and generating alternative nonviolent solutions to problems-all can reduce the impact of media violence on children and youth.” (Anderson-Gentile,
Much of the research into the link between video game violence and aggression seems based upon the similar research approach used in examining the link between television and movie violence and aggressive behaviour. If so, one needs to keep in mind the notion of arousal.
Many of the television and movie studies found that exposure to on-screen violence caused an increase in physiological arousal, including heart rate, brain activity and body temperature. Some of these studies call the link between TV and aggression as being “more characteristic of a link between TV and this physiological stimulation.” Any subsequent violence or aggression could then be seen as being linked more closely to this ‘arousal’ than to the show or movie itself – more akin to a substance addiction.
When applied to video games, this theory would work the same way. If a violent video game like Mortal Kombat is more physiologically stimulating than a non-violent one like Simcity, one would expect more aggression to be attached to Mortal Kombat. In simple terms, a man whose mind is racing and whose blood is pumping from the thrill of the chase and the tick of the clock is more inclined towards physical ‘action’ than is one who has been at rest or merely puzzling over challenging mental problems.
Jonathan Freedman is a Professor Emeritus and social psychologist with the University of Toronto who points out some flaws in the television logic when applied to video games.
In an essay entitled “Evaluating the Research on Violent Video Games”, Freedman points out that in the Anderson-Gentile study, the authors identified “35 research reports that included 54 independent samples of participants. Of these, only 22 were published. Of these 22, only 9 dealt specifically with aggressive behavior.” From this, Freedman concludes that the entirety of published research material on the video game issue rests on the results of these nine experiments. If this is so, then there are few other issues as important as this based on such a small body of research material. Further, he suspects that these experiments are likely flawed in more specific ways. Freedman writes:
“From a scientific standpoint, to accurately determine whether exposure to violent video games causes aggression, the ideal experiment would randomly assign children to playing or not playing video games containing violence. Some would play violent video games for a great many hours, some would play such games for less time or would play games with less violence; others would play no video games, and so on. They would continue to do this for many years, and during and after that time one would obtain measures of their aggressive behavior. If those who played violent video games engaged in more aggressive or violent behavior, it would indicate that the video games caused aggression; and if this difference did not emerge, it would provide evidence that playing violent video games did not cause aggression.”
For obvious reasons, such a study is not very plausible, if possible at all. Due to ethical and legal issues, one simply cannot assign children to play certain kinds of games for years even if one were willing to do so. So, our researchers use what they have to work with, and end up relying on less than perfect studies to answer our questions.
Considering these factors, some researchers have embraced non-experimental studies, mostly consisting of small-scale surveying. People are asked about their exposure to video games, to violent video games, and to various other media. They are also asked about their aggressive behavior, then the researchers conduct correlational analyses (or other similar analyses) to see if those who are exposed more to violent video games are more aggressive than those who are exposed less.
Freedman writes about these non-experimental studies: “Despite some inconsistencies and complexities, the results seem to indicate that people who spend more time playing video games tend to be more aggressive than those who spend less time playing them; and, with less certainty, that this is especially true of playing violent video games. Because there are so few studies and the lack of representative samples, we cannot put much confidence in the size of these correlations. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the basic relation is true – those who like violent video games tend to be more aggressive than those who do not like them.”
On the one hand, by using these criteria, the possibility is raised that video games cause aggression. On the other hand, the possibility exists that those predisposed to be aggressive simply enjoy violent video games and other more violent forms of entertainment (including sports) more than do those with less aggressive personalities. Using this logic, it is not the playing of games that cause aggression, it may be the aggression that causes the preference for violent games. – the chicken before the egg theory. Both the chicken and the egg are caused by a pre-existing personality type.
Controversy not withstanding, there is no question that children spend a great deal of their time playing violent video games at exactly the ages that they should be learning healthy ways to relate to other people and to resolve conflicts peacefully. Because video games are such good teachers thanks to the aforementioned repetition and reinforcement, it is critical that parents, educators, and policy-makers understand how to maximize the benefits of video game technology while minimizing their potential harm.
This is why, in 1993, the video game industry began putting ratings on video games. These ratings range from EC and E for Early Childhood and Everyone respectively, through M for Mature to AO for Adults Only. These Mature and Adult rated games are not supposed to be available to children under the age of 18, but the ease with which children can still purchase them has prompted several major retail chains (Target, Wal-Mart and Sears) to create their own policies preventing children under 17 from buying them. These policies often involve the games being kept under lock and key until appropriate identification is produced. In addition, numerous child advocacy and parent support groups, such as Children Now and the National Institute on Media and the Family, have incorporated video game research findings into their web sites and educational materials.
As mentioned before, there are definitely two opposing camps on this issue. While psychologists, educators, and family groups expound on the detrimental effects of video games, others, like game creator Will Wright, claims that these arguments are blown out of proportion and merely “symptoms of a generation gap”.
Wright has a long history of producing games which simulate the real world and contain important educational aspects. His first hit, SimCity, allowed players to build and manage entire towns and cities. His biggest success to date, The Sims, lets players build families and live virtual lives. His Sims game has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide since it’s release in 2000, making it the most popular game in history.
“I think there’s always been a generational divide between people who play games and people who don’t,” Wright told The Guardian, a distinguished English newspaper. “It goes in fits and starts over time. If there’s a school shooting, it’s always a case of ‘did they play games or not?’ You don’t really hear much about what movies they watch or what books they read,” he said. “But 50 years ago that’s exactly what you heard – ‘did they read To Kill a Mockingbird?’ or whatever it was. They would blame social ills on anything that was at hand.”
Other video game advocates argue that the definition of violence is subjective and broad, and thus the groups who ‘rank’ and ‘rate’ the games, should consider the context in which the violent acts occur, and whether the overall message of the game is pro-violence or against it. But much like the game Tetris, beneath every solution there lies another problem.
The majority of video games are played by one person at a time. So critics stress that games emphasize solitary play rather than cooperation. They further argue that since a common game scenario involves the ‘one man against the world’ philosophy, these discourage a sense of togetherness and reinforces an ‘us against them’ philosophy in the real world.
Still other video game critics bring up the notion of gender roles and sexism. With some exceptions, more video games depict women as victims, princesses, background characters and spiritual guides or goddesses. One 1992 study found that as seen on the covers of the 47 most popular Nintendo games a total of 115 male and 9 female characters depicted. Among these characters, 20 of the males struck a dominant pose while none of the females did. Thirteen of the 47 games were based on a scenario in which a woman is kidnapped or has to be rescued.
But this argument can be contrasted with the aforementioned statistics regarding the divide between male gamers and female – boys simply play more games, so game characters are more often masculine – even when the heroes are women. (See Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider game series.)
Judging from all the debate and discussion that they inspire, it is clear that there is room for more debate and research about the effects of video games on young minds. Given the low quantities of conclusive ‘experiment-based’ research currently available, any recommendations as to the limitations on video games should be conservative. There is likely no need to ban or boycott violent games completely. However, a wise parental move would likely involve limiting gameplay time and monitoring game content. According to researcher Jeanne Funk, parents, teachers, and other professionals responsible for children should “seek creative ways to increase the acceptance, popularity, and availability of games that are relatively pro-social, educational, and fun.”
On a personal level, I believe that our tools are what we make of them – not the other way around. Unlike any other generation before them, the youngest minds on our continent have likely been exposed in their short lives to the most prolific amount of media violence humans have ever been privy to. Without some sort of intervention, we may be broadcasting a generational dischord – one in which children are exposed to too much too early. The youth of today often have a television as their babysitter, and can live vicariously through the lives of characters – growing up far faster than we want them to.
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