We naturally learn from our environment, including the media we use, whether it’s a television show, a radio station, or a video game. And the media can teach us certain behaviors that we, and others, might not even be aware of. This is why a group of researchers recently took a closer look at how playing video games affects the behavior of kids and adolescents, since more than 90% of kids in America play video games. In one paper, they found that playing video games can be beneficial, increasing players’ levels of empathy and helpfulness in social situations. However, in a second paper, the researchers described how playing video games can also increase aggressive behaviors in children and teenagers over time.
How can interfacing with the same type of media — video games — result in such different outcomes? A lot of it, not too surprisingly, comes down to the content of the games. More than 90% of video games that are rated for 10 to 17-year-olds (E10+, Teen, and Mature 17+) depict at least some violence, and usually do it in a way that makes violence look fun and not have any negative consequences. Repeatedly playing violent video games was found to correlate with children having more aggressive behaviors, but people who played prosocial video games — ones that encourage players to help other players or characters, or show characters helping each other — resulted in people behaving more beneficially with others in real life. This isn’t really shocking, but the implications are worth noting.
In the second study, researchers specifically followed 2,232 children and teens in Singapore over three years. The participants started out in 3rd, 4th, 7th, or 8th grade, at an average age of 11-years-old, and with an age range of 8 to 17-years-old. Each year, they were asked how often they played video games and how often those games portrayed violence or prosocial themes. They were also questioned about their aggressive behaviors (such as how often they hit somebody when they got upset) and their aggressive cognitions (such as whether they thought it was wrong for a person to hit somebody because they got upset, or if they ever fantasized about hurting somebody they didn’t like). Parental involvement in watching their kids play video games was also measured.
Overall, the researchers found that if kids habitually played violent video games, their aggressive behaviors increased in the long-term, and this was thought to be due to increased aggressive cognitions from playing the games. This effect on behavior was more significant for younger kids, and for boys compared to girls, but in general this trend was observed regardless of age, sex, initial levels of aggression, and parental involvement.
In the first study, the researchers focused on how video games may positively affect the behavior of players. Again, the content of the games played is what really mattered – over a 2 year period, playing video games that display or encourage prosocial behavior resulted in the players likewise being more empathetic, helpful, and cooperative in real life social situations, regardless of age, gender, and culture. (This study mostly used an older group, with an average age of 21, including 2,202 adolescents from 7 countries.)
So while it probably won’t come as a surprise to find that kids learn behaviors from the video games they play, the clear implications may encourage parents to be more involved in helping their kids pick out their next game.
For further reading:
- Science Daily’s article “Life lessons: Children learn aggressive ways of thinking and behaving from violent video games, study finds”
- Douglas A. Gentile, Dongdong Li, Angeline Khoo, Sara Prot, and Craig A. Anderson’s article “Mediators and Moderators of Long-term Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior”
- Sara Prot et al.’s article “Long-Term Relations Among Prosocial-Media Use, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior”