Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Tuesday, May 14, 2013
by Kristen J. Tsetsi
When a person found guilty of a shockingly violent attack is discovered to be a frequent player of violent video games—or when a criminal such as confessed cop-killer Devin Moore says the “Grand Theft Auto” video game directly influenced his 2003 crime spree—an outraged public revives the sleeping debate about video games and their relationship with real-world violence.
Research has repeatedly provided evidence that there could be some kind of reliable connection between violent video games and actual violence. A 2006 study led by Iowa State University psychologists and published in the July 2006 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that exposure to violent video games led to an increase in aggressiveness and anger, and a decrease in positive behaviors.
A 2011 University of Missouri study of 70 young adults broken into two experimental gaming groups, violent and nonviolent, revealed an increase in aggressive behavior in those who spent 25 minutes playing a violent game, according to brain measurements taken immediately following game play.
And yet, Natchaug Hospital child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul Weigle, M.D. says that as games have become exponentially more powerful and have taken up more time in the life of young Americans, the violent crime rate among the youth population has decreased. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, juvenile crime dropped 36 percent between 1995 and 2008.
“So, it does seem perhaps that some of the data does conflict,” Weigle says.
Far from declaring that violent video games negatively impact everyone who plays them—“Most kids can play these violent games to some degree, and most don’t become violent,” he says—Weigle instead says there is likely a sub-population of kids who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of violent video games. Those who aren’t engaged in school, for example, or who lack a close relationship with a caring adult. Those who have higher aggression to begin with.
“There are multiple different studies showing that boys who are less empathetic or rate themselves as aggressive prefer violent video games. They self-select,” he says.
In his practice, Weigle sees children as young as five and six years old who regularly play such games, and he isn’t surprised that they’re the same children who are brought in to treat “extremely aggressive behavior.”
Unexpectedly, violent video games have even been shown to have a positive impact on some players. For instance, first-person shooter games may improve memory, says one Dutch university study conducted by a research team led by Dr. Lorenza Colzato and published in the journal Psychological Research.
Texas A&M International University associate professor Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson recommends violent video game use in therapy as a stress-reliever, having found in a study of 103 young male and female adults given a frustration task that results suggest “violent games reduce depression and hostile feelings in players through mood management.”
But another potential consequence of young people playing video games without proper moderation is addiction, to which Weigle says they are more susceptible because they have less ability to control their intake.
A 2007 Harris interactive study reported that, nationally, 8.5 percent of youth gamers ages 8 to 18 could be classified as “pathological or clinically ‘addicted’ to playing video games.”
An Iowa State University report on Media Violence and Children cites studies showing the average time children spend with video games rose from four hours per week in the mid-1980s to 4.5 hours per week for fourth grade girls and 7.1 hours per week for fourth grade boys in the mid-1990s. By 2002, girls had added half an hour of game time to their week, while boys averaged 13 hours per week.
Eight studies cited by the publication found increased game play led to poorer academic performance.
“One study looked at fourth grade boys,” Weigle says. “They gave half of them a free video game console. Four months later, they had lower reading and writing scores, and more academic problems reported by teachers.”
It isn’t just children who can become addicted. In 2008, 24-year-old Quin Pitcock left the Indianapolis Colts, citing an addiction to video games.
“There are cases of people killing each other over their game habit,” Weigle says. “Parents killing children who interrupted their video game play, like Alexandra Tobias.”
Tobias pled guilty in 2010 to shaking her baby to death after becoming angry when her baby interrupted her “FarmVille” Facebook game.
In 2012, a Taiwanese teen died after spending 40 straight hours on a role-playing game.
The US is behind in treating video game addiction, Weigle says, but other countries are taking it seriously.
In 2010, South Korea’s effort to combat video game addiction led to a ban on late-night gaming. Vietnam in 2011 instituted a blockage that would disconnect players from their games between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
“Officially in the US there is no diagnosis, but in China and Southeast Asia it is not only considered a real psychiatric condition, but a national public health problem,” he says.
The American Psychiatric Association has included “Internet Gaming Disorder” in section 3 of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is for conditions requiring further research before being considered formal disorders.
Weigle is concerned that without an official diagnosis, doctors will be less likely to look for gaming addiction as a potential problem and may therefore not ask the right questions.
“We don’t let kids engage in other activity that can be habit forming, like gambling or smoking, and there’s a reason for that,” he says.