Putting another log on the old fire of violent videogame controversies, Douglas Gentile’s latest study has been released online in JAMA Pediatrics.
As played out in the media, the question always is, Do violent videogames make children violent? For researchers, of course, the question is much more nuanced. For one thing, while measuring “violent” content in videogames is relatively easy, how do you measure “violence” in children? One approach that researchers like Gentile used in the past was to measure something called “violent arousal” in subjects. This is a physiological reaction to stimuli that can be easily measured in subjects. The problem with that approach, when trying to paint violent videogames with a negative brush, is that all “violent” media can gin up “violent arousal” in subjects. Physiological results are similar with “violent” music, movies, television shows, literature, etc.
Much more difficult to measure are long term attitudes and actions which may be influenced by videogames or other media. Gentile’s newest study tackles that issue, with a three year longitudinal study of 3,034 students in Singapore. Here is the abstract:
Importance Although several longitudinal studies have demonstrated an effect of violent video game play on later aggressive behavior, little is known about the psychological mediators and moderators of the effect.
Objective To determine whether cognitive and/or emotional variables mediate the effect of violent video game play on aggression and whether the effect is moderated by age, sex, prior aggressiveness, or parental monitoring.
Design, Setting, and Participants Three-year longitudinal panel study. A total of 3034 children and adolescents from 6 primary and 6 secondary schools in Singapore (73% male) were surveyed annually. Children were eligible for inclusion if they attended one of the 12 selected schools, 3 of which were boys’ schools. At the beginning of the study, participants were in third, fourth, seventh, and eighth grades, with a mean (SD) age of 11.2 (2.1) years (range, 8-17 years). Study participation was 99% in year 1.
Main Outcomes and Measures The final outcome measure was aggressive behavior, with aggressive cognitions (normative beliefs about aggression, hostile attribution bias, aggressive fantasizing) and empathy as potential mediators.
Results Longitudinal latent growth curve modeling demonstrated that the effects of violent video game play are mediated primarily by aggressive cognitions. This effect is not moderated by sex, prior aggressiveness, or parental monitoring and is only slightly moderated by age, as younger children had a larger increase in initial aggressive cognition related to initial violent game play at the beginning of the study than older children. Model fit was excellent for all models.
Conclusions and Relevance Given that more than 90% of youths play video games, understanding the psychological mechanisms by which they can influence behaviors is important for parents and pediatricians and for designing interventions to enhance or mitigate the effects.
The study has not generated a ton of reaction in the media so far, maybe because this is a horse that has been beaten so many times, to borrow a phrase. WTOP, a news radio station for the Washington, D.C. area, noted the study is “controversial,” and reporter Paula Wolfson went to the trouble of interviewing Angela Fletcher, with the Children’s National Health Network for some additional opinions on the matter. Wolfson’s report on the study is the best so far, in my opinion.
Bottom line, the issue is too complex to place in a convenient box. Exposure to any kind of “violent” media may cause a person to engage in violence at some point in the future. Or not. But, the research continues.