Violent video games and the brain

As video games continue becoming more violent and increasingly realistic and as technology improves the controversy over whether or not violent video games are potentially harmful to players increases.  These debates have even made it as far as the Supreme Court in 2010.

In 2008 it was reported that 97% of young people ages 12-17 played some type of video game, and that two-thirds of them played games that contained violent content. A separate study found that more than half of all video games contained some form of violence. Because of this, parents, pediatricians, teachers, and mental health professionals are beginning to ask questions about the impact that violent video games will have on today’s youth.

Researchers are divided on whether or not violent video games actually increase aggression among children and teens. Many organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) propose that children learn are affected by the violence in video games and that there is a direct correlation between the numbing of emotions, sleep problems, academic impairments, and most importantly aggressive and violent behaviors.  There is also a concern that the amount of time a child or teen spends playing violent video games has a negative implications.

In a recent study presented by Indiana University School of Medicine researchers at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America showed a direct  relationship between playing violent video games over an extended period of time and a subsequent change in brain regions associated with cognitive function and emotional control. “For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home,” said Yang Wang, M.D., assistant research professor in the IU Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. “The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior.” Gentile, Lynch, Linder & Walsh (2004, p.6) state that teens who play violent video games for extended periods of time:

  • Tend to be more aggressive
  • Are more prone to confrontation with their teachers
  • May engage in fights with their peers
  • See a decline in school achievements. (Gentile et al, 2004).

Some researchers believe that while playing violent video games leads to violent actions, there are also biological influences that impact a person’s choices. According to Sean P. Neubert of Rochester Institute of Technology, a person who is biologically predisposed to aggression will be more strongly influenced by violent scenes and thus will have a greater risk for carrying out destructive actions.

On the other hand, there are researchers that have questioned this stance and argue that the majority of youth are not affected by violent video games and remain convinced that playing these types of games may be a part of normal development. Numerous researchers even note that video games have a “positive” impact on children, improving manual dexterity, social and cognitive development, and computer literacy.  It has been shown that “action” video game players have better hand-eye coordination and visuo-motor skills, such as their resistance to distraction, their sensitivity to information in the peripheral vision and their ability to count briefly presented objects, than non-players.

Dr. Cheryl Olson and her team at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard showed that violent games help students deal with stress and aggression. She has found that over 49% of boys and 25% of girls use violent games such as Grand Theft Auto IV as an outlet for their anger.

There is still a need for more research as there are many uncertainties and questions about the influence that violent video games may have on children.  The good news is there are a few simple things that parents can do to protect their children from potential harm. These precautions may help:

Limit the amount of time children spend playing video games. The AAP recommends two hours or less of total “screen” time per day (including television, computers, and video games).

  • Put TV’s and computers in common areas- not in children’s bedrooms.
  • Play video games with children to better understand the content and how they react.
  • Check ratings.
  • Encourage participation in sports and school activities.
  • Pay attention to “red-flags” such as, anger, depression, impulsivity and isolation.

When it comes to video games, moderation is key.

About Steven Petrus

Dr. Steven Petrus is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in psycho-educational assessment, child, adolescent and family therapy.
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