Study Finds Video Games Don't Make Adolescents Violent, Even Those With Mental Illnesses

New studies suggest children, even those with mental illnesses, are not driven or inspired to violence by video games.

Whenever a young man commits multiple homicide, gamers know to brace themselves for what's to come. It starts with small statements from the media before turning into a full-blown circus: The perpetrator spent every day playing violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. It was only a matter of time before he snapped!

Christopher J. Ferguson studies the impact of video game violence on children and teens for years. Now the Stetson University professor is gearing up to publish three new studies in the September 2015 issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Ferguson says his research has found no increase in hostility or aggression in juvenile players, including those with mental illnesses. From the journal article's highlights:

  • In two experimental studies, playing violent games did not increase youth aggression.
  • Youth who played violent games were also no less empathic toward others.
  • Youth with prior mental health symptoms were no more influenced by violent games.
  • Correlationally, violent games and books did not predict aggression or civic behavior.
  • Parental restrictions on gaming were not associated with positive outcomes.

This last bit of information is crucial. The most diehard video game defenders will concede that playing violent games could have an adverse effect on troubled individuals. I've been a gamer for more than two decades and have lived with depression and anxiety for a number of years, and even I've been open to making this point!

Video Games and Mental Illness

It seems logical that a person who has difficulty distinguishing reality from simulation might be capable of doing harm, intentionally or otherwise. But a large part of this reasoning stems from myths surrounding neuroatypical individuals, such as those with autism or schizophrenia.

Similarly, geek subcultures continue to fight against pervasive myths left over from the occultphobia of the 1980s and '90s. You're familiar with the benign ones that say all gamers are middle-aged, fat virgins who live in their mothers' basements and eat Hot Pockets all day. But the idea that gaming - or any other escapist hobby - could drag children away from God and into the clutches of Satan himself looms in the backgound.

Bringing these two groups - video game players and those with mental illnesses - together for his study, Ferguson finds that violent media do not cause or contribute to antisocial attitudes in youth. From "Digital Poison? Three Studies Examining the Influence of Violent Video Games on Youth":

Taken together, current results found little evidence for a causal or correlational relationship between violent video game play and behavioral outcomes. The current results also found little evidence to support the belief that violent video games may interact with mental health symptoms in some youth. Neither violent games nor violent books were associated with negative outcomes in the correlational study.

Ferguson, then, is addressing the specific problem of misunderstandings about both mental illness and geek subcultures. Because neither can be extricated from the other, in this case, the issue at hand is intersectional. That's what makes Ferguson's work so important, and the fact that he is fully aware of the intersectionality of his research subject makes him the perfect scholar for the job.

Read more of Ferguson's research at the link above, or check out these studies in the September issue of Computers in Human Behavior.

Published Jul. 16th 2015
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