Throughout the rapid rise in popularity of video games, there has consistently been staunch opposition that claims violent video games give rise to violence, despite increasing evidence stating otherwise.
Hoping to finally put the debate to rest, a ten-year study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking has now found no link between playing violent video games as a child and increased aggression in later years. Despite playing arguably one of the most controversial titles of all time – Grand Theft Auto (GTA) – at just 13 years old, the children that played for many hours showed no significant increase in aggression over those that played little or no hours when analyzed 10 years later.
The data backs up existing findings that violent tendencies likely don’t stem from violent video games, but it also provides insight into how many of the teens used games as a coping mechanism for mental health issues.
Writing about adolescents that played the most GTA when young, the authors explain how the teens may have used the games to distract themselves from ongoing issues, but that more detailed research would be needed to understand it.
Discussing children who started their early adolescence with violent games, “This group displayed higher depressive symptoms during early adolescence but decreased anxiety. It is possible that this group was using violent video games to manage or cope with depressive symptoms,” the authors write.
“Previous researchers have shown that playing video games as a coping mechanism or distraction from mental health problems may be effective, although these studies have failed to consider the content of video games played.”
The study was a longitudinal study, which means the researchers repeatedly recorded the same variables over the 10-year study period. Longitudinal studies are ideal for this type of data, as the data looks at how the teens grow as a whole whilst playing games, and their game play time can be compared to their personality outcomes in later life. However, studies such as this require extensive trial periods, so are rare for video game research.
Involving 500 participants, the researchers recruited children with an average age of almost 14 years old, and completed questionnaires over the trial period to report the frequency of playing games. Each game was allocated a violence rating of 0-5, with 5 being the most violent. At the start and end of the trial period, the participants’ aggression was measured using a questionnaire, alongside measuring other factors such as anxiety, depression, and prosocial behavior (behavior that ‘benefits society as a whole’).
The results suggested that the teens followed one of three patterns of playing violent video games: group 1 played many hours early in life, but decreased sharply as they got older; group 2 played a moderate amount all the way through their teens and slightly increased play time as they entered adulthood; and group 3 (the largest group) played very little to start with but increased their play time as they got older. Despite playing a lot when young, the children in group 1 showed a strong decrease in game time, which the authors suggest may have involved an intervention from their carers, maybe affecting their outcome.
The children in group 1 with the most violent game time when young showed no significant difference in adulthood aggression to those that played very little. The moderate group, who played consistently throughout teens, showed the highest level of aggression.
These findings suggest that playing violent video games early in development is a poor predictor of aggression in later life – although it is possible that sustained playing throughout early life could be linked to more aggression later on, this would need further study to verify.
Like all studies, there are limitations to the results. All the data was collected by self-reporting, which can have a degree of bias and may not be a true representation of their aggression and/or game time. However, with such a large number of participants over a long period, self-reporting remains the most viable option for these types of studies.