Buying Into Violence This Holiday Season

With mature-rated video games continuously topping adolescents’ holiday wish lists, parents must confront dangers that their children often face at home, on their own television screens.

Buying Into Violence This Holiday SeasonIt’s a holiday cliché: a child pleading for a toy that leaves his or her parents with qualms. The scenario plays out in Bob Clark’s classic 1983 film, A Christmas Story when 9-year-old Ralphie Parker begs for a Red Ryder air-rifle for Christmas. The condensed version, Ralphie unwraps the glorified BB gun on Christmas morning, to his father’s delight and mother’s distress — she discerns the havoc such a toy can incite. There’s a modern parallel to kids who have the same adoration for video games with ratings ranging from T (Teen), M (Mature +17), and A (Adults Only +18) that can boast crude themes of sex, violence, and strong language. The question of who is mentally apt to handle the mature material presented in these games is one that often lacks a definitive answer.

Take, for example, the controversy surrounding the American Psychology Association’s (APA) 2013 study, which centered on the immediate and long-term psychologically harm that violent video games can take on child, adolescent, and young adult players. In 2005, the APA formed a taskforce of seven senior scientists whose expertise include meta-analyses, child development, digital media, multicultural psychology, and violence and aggression. They adopted a procedure, established by the National Academies of Science, to eliminate bias from their results. After conducting research between 2009 and 2013 that involved reviewing more than 170 articles relating to the matter, the taskforce found that players experienced increasingly aggressive behavior and cognitions, and a withdrawal of prosocial behavior, empathy, and sensitivity to aggression; linking but lacking evidence that connects mass homicides to these changes. Their results were met with immediate criticism. A conglomerate of 230 media scholars, psychologists, and criminologists from across the nation responded to the study with an open letter, suggesting that their failure to acknowledge contrary studies was “wildly ethically unsound.”

Much of the scientific debate is centered around whether this relationship is merely correlation or actual causation. But a bullet-proof consensus has emerged: a 2014 study conducted by the University of Innsbruck in Austria compiled the results of 98 published studies that revolved around the social behavioral effects of violent and prosocial video games, which involved nearly 37,000 participants. Their conclusion is that games that promote positive or negative behaviors, do in fact have a social influence on the player. Dr. L. Rowell Huesmann, a professor of Psychology and Communications at the University of Michigan that has conducted extensive research on the matter, agrees. “There’s strong scientific evidence that playing violent video games between the ages of 2 and 17 increases the risk of aggressive behavior,” he says, referring to studies including his own 2014 report which analyzed the associations that are developed in children from violent video and computer game playing and weapon carrying in reality. Huesmann continues to cite two reasons as to why a number of psychologists and researchers still debate these effects. One being that the global, $36 billion-gaming industry funds advocation against evidence that suggests consequences with video game usage. The other, that researchers were once, and possibly still are, players of these mature games. Both the results of bias. Huesmann believes that the scientific derivative of these games is relatively simple. “It’s a clear, psychological theory that whatever you observe during your developmental period, you’re going to incorporate into your behavior repertoire,” he says. Video games are the most detrimental form of violent media simply because players receive positive reinforcement for participating in or acting out lewd behavior. That carries over to real life.”

While gauging the maturity of a child is certainly on an individual basis, those whose realities relate to these themes of violence are at a greater risk. “If you have, say, a child engaging in a mature video game, and they also happen to witness violence committed by their peers, parents, or people in their community, this real-world relationship is going to exacerbate the effects of these video games. I’m convinced that any child under 13 should not be playing violent video games,” he says. Eva Robinson, a Detroit-based in-home therapist specializing in child psychology, also stresses that the influence of these games can vary widely from child to child. Any cognitive or emotional impairment that a player experiences can make it difficult for that child, adolescent, or young adult to distinguish between gaming and reality,” she says. Robinson advises that if you allow your children to play T, M, or A-rated games that it is important to discuss the consequences of acting out violent behavior. “Avoid gifting your child something that they’re going to have to pay for later in their physical or emotional well-being,” she says. As for Huesmann, he recommends that parents stray from violent video games for their children, completely. Instead, he suggests games that can foster an interest in skill-building. His game of choice? Guitar Hero.

What are you gifting this holiday season? Let us know in the comments below!

Related: The Art of Gifting