Violent video games train children to think and act more aggressively, according to a recent study conducted at Iowa State University and published in Jama Pediatrics.
While a lot of studies have shown a relationship between violent video play and aggressive behaviors, “we wanted to look at what is actually changing in the brain that would account for it,” said Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University and the study’s lead author.
The researchers discovered that violent video games affect how children see the world and change their thinking in three ways. First, children who play violent video games tend to attribute hostility to the actions of other people, even when no hostility is present, because the games have taught them to be vigilant in watching for enemies. For example, a child who gets bumped in the hallway may assume it was intentional when it was not.
Secondly, the researchers found the children began to believe that it was acceptable to respond aggressively when provoked. Lastly, the children experienced an increase in aggressive fantasies. According to the study, the children’s aggressive thinking predicted aggressive behavior two years later.
Parents often don’t make the connection between their child’s video game playing and aggression because the behaviors don’t look anything like what the children are doing in the game. “They are not picking up ray guns and shooting aliens,” Gentile said. “They are saying means things and spreading rumors and pushing on the playground.”
Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication studies at Biola University, attributes the relationship between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior in children to a concept known as priming, which occurs when a prior situation influences perception of a current situation.
For example, in one study researchers divided participants into two groups. One was “primed” by watching film clips of aggressive basketball coaches during a game. The other group did not watch the film clips. Then, both groups watched a film of someone speaking on another topic. The speaker was told to be calm and reserved and to void any aggressive language, tone, or gestures. Researchers then asked both groups to rate the speaker and comment on his level of aggression. The group that had been primed by watching the aggressive basketball coaches rated the speaker much higher on measures of aggression than the group that was not primed.
The same thing happens with children playing violent video games, according to Muehlhoff. For example, in playing Call of Duty, players experience a constant rush of violent characters coming at them and must decipher and react to the images. Muehlhoff likens it to a person eating at a restaurant that is not clean. The next time the person goes to a restaurant their “germ antennas” will be up, causing them to see germs everywhere, even in a very clean restaurant. In the same way, “these kids are being primed to see aggression in places where no aggression is happening,” Muehlhoff said.