US researchers have found a link between violent computer games and kids' behaviour - and the effect may be long-lasting. For kids, it's an agonising choice - buy the Xbox 360 now, or wait for the Playstation 3?Strong parents, immune to pester power, may just say, "You're not having either of them. Go outdoors and engage in healthy active pastimes!" Yeah sure, mum and dad. Get real.
If, and when, mum and dad do bow to the inevitable and buy the latest console, there's another issue to face. Just what are little Tom, Dick and Harriet actually going to be playing on them?
If the game contains violent action and images, it could seriously affect the child's behaviour - now and down the track.
That's the conclusion of a study published in this month's journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which looked at how violence in computer games affects young adults. And the findings are worrying. The researchers found - as have other researchers in the past - that there's a definite causal link between the violence portrayed in computer games, and violent and antisocial behaviour.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Pittsburgh in the US randomly divided a group of 100 male university undergraduates into two groups (they chose men because men are more likely to play violent computer games than women). The men were aged 18 to 21, from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. One group played a low-level violence game; The Simpsons: Hit and Run. The other group payed a high-level violence game; Grand Theft Auto III. In The Simpsons, players have to deliver Lisa Simpson's science project to school before Principal Skinner arrives and marks Lisa's project down as late. In Grand Theft Auto players take the role of a criminal employed by the mafia to use a baseball bat to beat up a drug dealer who's been selling drugs to prostitutes employed by the mafia (Hmm).
Before and after playing the game, both groups filled out a questionnaire that tested their attitudes towards violent acts and their attitude towards risky pastimes - alcohol and marijuana use, and unprotected sex. Their blood pressure was measured during play.
Men who played Grand Theft Auto had greater increases in blood pressure, more negative moods, more uncooperative behaviour, more conflict in their social interaction with others, and more permissive attitudes toward using alcohol and marijuana, compared to those who played The Simpsons. Their socioeconomic background and the levels of violence they had experienced in the past made no difference.
Are these effects transitory, or are they lasting? That's the big question. To date there hasn't been a lot of research on the long-term effects of computer game violence because computer games are a recent phenomenon.
But there is plenty of evidence that shows a link between TV violence and long-term antisocial and violent behaviour, say the researchers. Exposure to television and media violence in childhood increases aggressive behaviour and criminality well into young adulthood, even after taking into account things like early aggressive behaviour, family socioeconomic status, parenting characteristics, and the safety of their particular community, say the researchers.
How does violence have this effect? Repeated acts of violence desensitise the natural aversion to violence that the child would otherwise have. And if the game rewards violent acts, but not non-violent ones, the child begins to think violence is not only acceptable, but desirable. The longer a chid is exposed to violence, the more ingrained these attitudes become.
There's a widespread but false belief that violent games are healthy because they allow kids a way of venting their aggression. They don't.
Supervision the key
That's not to say that a boy who plays a violent computer game is going to go out into the street and pick a fight. Extreme aggression, such as aggravated assault or homicide, is usually caused by several factors. Watching violent computer games is only one of many risk factors. Nor does it mean you should ban the console. Many children get a lot of enjoyment out of playing video games and these games can help build visual, problem-solving and fine motor skills.
What is does mean is that parents need to monitor what games their kids are playing.
Research on young children shows the bad effects of media violence are reduced when less time is spent viewing television and video game playing and when parents view the programs with children and offer guidance, the researchers say. Here are some tips from Young Media Australia, an organisation that advises on how media affects the healthy development of children. Before allowing your child to buy a computer game, rent the game and look at it with your child. If:
- the game involves some characters trying to harm others;
- this happens frequently, that is, more than once or twice in 30 minutes;
- the harm is rewarded in any way;
- the harm is portrayed as humorous;
- non-violent solutions are absent or less fun than the violent ones;
- realistic consequences of violence are absent from the game;
then think about whether you really want your child to play it. More information on this article can be found at: http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2006/04/13/1614831.htm