Do violent video games lead to aggression?

Ben Falkenmire

writer

Ben Falkenmire

Writer

Ben Falkenmire

Excessive screen-time is on the rise, with serious implications…

A growing body of research links excessive screen use and violent gaming among children with an increase in aggression levels, but parental management and monitoring of their kids’ tech activity can be preventative, according to a leading expert.

Associate Professor Wayne Warburton of Macquarie University and his peers recently found around 3% of kids fit the bill for a diagnosis of excessive gaming disorder, while around 10% fall into a hazardous category defined by the WHO.

The Sydney-based psychologist is concerned that a significant rise in screen time over the past eight years, with some kids now averaging 8 hours a day of recreational use, means kids are spending more time playing violent games— and becoming more aggressive and violent as a result.

Proven link between violent games and aggression

The public continues to debate the link between violent games and increases in aggression and violence. Associate Professor Warburton, who is overseeing an intervention trial for kids with excessive gaming disorder, is convinced there is enough empirical research to quell the doubts.

“A lot of exposure to violent media leads to short term and long term increases in aggression. More than 25 studies involving video games show the effects are cumulative. We still don’t know which kids are most vulnerable, but we consistently find the effects,” says Associate Professor Warburton.

Aggressive behaviour is not the only psychological impact from violent games. Children also demonstrate a desensitisation to violence, reduced empathy and social behaviour, and increases in fear.

“Unfortunately disordered recreational screen use is linked to atrophy in parts of the brain. So when you start to lose that gray matter, it’s in the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobes where you do things like manage your emotions and control your impulses,” says Associate Professor Warburton.

“I’m not going to say that violent media is going to make someone a school shooter. Because any act of violence has multiple causes, but violent media is probably going to have a big impact in the way they behave.”

Guide parents to monitor screen use

At the extreme end, Associate Professor Warburton has seen parents take out apprehended violence orders against their children. For severe cases such as these, he recommends GPs refer the child to a psychologist with specific expertise in excessive gaming.

For children presenting with subclinical levels of aggression, parents are likely to need guidance on how to intervene. Associate Professor Warburton uses the food pyramid structure to convey the idea that children should spend more of their allotted screen time on healthy activities, like educational media use, while minimising their time on violent gaming, the equivalent to the sugars and fat section of the food pyramid.

Longer sleep times and physical activity are also pivotal.

“Sleep is crucial. Most teenagers are probably sleep deprived, often because of screen use. Kids need their 9, 10 and 11 hours sleep in order to develop well,” he says.

“We also need to encourage regular exercise and outdoor activity and we’re looking for a balance – you get to spend two hours on a screen and spend two hours outside.”

Associate Professor Warburton is a big fan of parents using apps like KoalaSafe and Family Zone to monitor WiFi use in the home, an internvention which has shown to improve a child’s sleep and and academic performance, and reduce violent media time and aggressive behaviour. He also encourages parents to create a family media plan with their kids using the www.healthychildren.org website.

“A warm, loving, kind family environment where good conflict resolution is modelled is really crucial and offsets a lot of the effects media might have in the child’s life,” Associate Professor Warburton says.

“The last thing I say to parents is model good behaviour. The kids are watching their parents carefully. If you want your kids to be healthy users, you need to be too.”

For more tips on treating kids with video game addiction, check out this recent Healthed article with practical advice from other top experts.

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Ben Falkenmire

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Ben Falkenmire

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