Can video games cause violence? (And will your age influence your answer?)

Research reveals that the age of clinicians – and their view of young people – affects whether they think video games are harmful

In 2011, Anders Breivik sent shockwaves around the world when he killed eight people during a bomb attack in Oslo, Norway, then 69 more in a shooting at a youth camp. News reports revealed that he played violent video games and suggested they could have contributed to his violent behavior. He had written a manifesto that talked about two games in particular – World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – which happen to be two of the most popular video games on the market.

“Unfortunately, events like this do happen; when they involve young males in particular, people start to look to video games as a cause,” said psychology professor Dr. Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in Florida. “When something happens in a public place, it causes panic; I can remember being concerned when I sent my kid to school after an elementary school shooting in the US in 2012. The idea of it is threatening, so we look for a cause we can control.”

Video games have been the focus of many studies, controversies and newspaper headlines in recent decades. But in the absence of conclusive evidence, why do some people think they cause violent behavior?

Photo courtesy of study author Christopher Ferguson, PhDDr. Ferguson has published a new study in Computers and Human Behaviorrevealing that age has a big effect on whether clinicians believe video games cause harm: the older the clinician, the more likely they are to think playing video games leads to violent behavior.

The study also reveals that clinicians who view young people negatively are more likely to think playing video games is harmful. Dr. Ferguson said the findings help explain why people have different opinions about the effect of video games in the absence of any conclusive evidence and suggests it could be a generational issue.

Video games: the latest in a long line of scapegoats?

This concern about new forms of media is not new. In the 1950s, there were Congressional hearings in the United States over comic books causing juvenile delinquency. In the 1980s, the story returned but this time over the dangers of listening to rock music; some people thought it was causing suicide, violence and occultism in young people.

“We tend to see a lot of controversies like this around young people; moral panics about teens are nothing new,” said Dr. Ferguson. “As a nation, we freak out about something, then everyone thinks it’s crazy 15 years later. Now we can’t imagine how anyone thought listening to Tom Petty and Cindy Lauper was making us behave violently.”

As long as video games have existed, people have thought about and studied their effect on behavior. But 30 years of research hasn’t fully answered the question of whether playing games causes harm, and people still have conflicting opinions about the topic. Two experts can look at the same data and draw the opposite conclusion, so Dr. Ferguson wanted to understand what factors affect their opinions.

His study analyzes the opinions of 109 clinicians who work with children and families to see whether they agree that video games are a problem for society, including whether they cause youth violence. Overall, there is no agreement – only 39.5 percent of clinicians think playing video games causes violent behavior.

Most of the clinicians surveyed who have a hostile view towards video games are older, and the majority of those surveyed are not gamers, reporting that they played zero hours of video games a week in the last six months. Dr. Ferguson said there is a generational effect at play.

Older people who are parents or grandparents don’t tend to use new media, such as video games, and they often only see clips of its worst examples, so they believe there is some potential to cause harm. The young people who use the new media don’t buy into this, but no one listens to them because they’re kids.

“We weren’t that bad in my day”

The results also revealed that clinicians with a negative view of young people were more likely to think video games are harmful. According to Dr. Ferguson, adults tend to believe they were more respectful and well behaved as children than the next generation – a myth that repeats itself every generation.

“As people get older, the culture changes and they feel it slipping away from them,” said Dr. Ferguson. “Comic books, rock music and video games are the sorts of new media that older people don’t feel part of when they emerge, and that can skew their opinions.”

In a media and behavior class he teaches, Dr. Ferguson often asks his students if they think their generation will be immune to this myth. They usually say yes – they can’t imagine being fuddy-duddies like their parents and grandparents when it comes to the next trend. But are they right?

“We’ve seen moral panic over and over again, but we don’t tend to reflect on it after we’ve seen sense,” said Dr. Ferguson. “I’ll challenge you to find a newspaper headline that says, ‘Actually, Ozzy Osborne is safe for kids.’ But with video games, we’re starting to see headlines like that. Are heavy users, such as gamers, learning to be more cautious in the future with their kids and therefore less likely to repeat the same pattern? Historically the pattern says no, but time will tell.”

The problem of bias for unbiased opinion

While it’s important to acknowledge that the generation gap could affect opinion, Dr. Ferguson notes that bias in experts like clinicians could be problematic since they provide expert testimonials and policy statements. For example, scholars are currently lobbying the American Psychological Association (APA) to retire their statements on video games, saying their conclusions are controversial and do not reflect consensus.

“Clinicians are no different – they’re people too, and are susceptible to these reactions,” he said. “If clinicians are so prone to bias about media effects, and able to produce policy statements that are so wrong, what about the statements about other things, such as circumcision? We rely on these people for unbiased opinion, so it’s a concern. Understanding that the generational effect is so strong could help us find a way to be more objective when it comes to moral panic, and to assess expert opinion for bias.”

Parents: play the game

Parents are likely to experience the same generation gap bias, which can affect their parenting decisions. Media reports about video games feature the worst, most violent clips; shocking footage can lead parents to worry, make assumptions and leap to conclusions about video games.

“You’re being manipulated because the news programs want you to watch,” Dr. Ferguson explained. “There are games that will offend you, but the same can be said for books and TV series. If you don’t understand kids’ motivation, you’ll end up filling in details that are scarier than the truth, make assumptions and base your decisions on bias.”

Dr. Ferguson suggested that to minimize the generation gap effect, parents could talk to their children about video games – and even try them out.

Ask your kids why they like playing these games, and play them yourself. Direct experience will give you much better insight than a 20-second clip on Fox News. And being an informed parent, if you do restrict their use of games you’ll get more respect than resentment.

Read the study

Elsevier has made the following article freely available until November 2015.

Christopher J. Ferguson: “Clinicians’ attitudes toward video games vary as a function of age, gender and negative beliefs about youth: A sociology of media research approach,” Computers in Human Behavior (November 2015)

The Author

Christopher Ferguson, PhDDr. Christopher Ferguson is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He has done extensive research on video game and other media influences, including on violence, body image and addiction issues. He was given an Early Career Scientists award from the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association. In addition to his research and teaching, he writes speculative fiction, including his first novel, Suicide Kings, a mystery set in Renaissance Florence.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

  Goodchild-van  HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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