On March 24, 1998, in the small town of Jonesboro, Arkansas, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Johnson calmly and deliberately shot and killed four of their fellow students and a teacher at their school. Several other students and teachers were wounded in the killing spree in Westside Middle School.
This was just one of a string of school shootings in the USA that made headlines around the world and, at the time, was the second deadliest school shooting in the USA until it was followed, just a short time later, by the massacre at Columbine High school.
The shootings have continued unabated. Many of the perpetrators of these massacres were later characterised as ‘loners’. Some had mental health problems and media reports prominently reported that many or most of them were fond of video games — some of them to an unhealthy extent.
A decades-long debate
The debate about video games and violence has thus been raging for over two decades and is still undecided. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increased utilisation of digital entertainment, including online gaming and associated online activities for people of all ages including children and adolescents.
While some games have educational content and may promote learning, problem solving, development of motor skills and coordination, the popularity of video games has also raised concerns about their possible negative effects.
The recent case of a popular video game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and its possible connection to the tragic Lahore incident of familicide by a teenager as well as three earlier cases of suicide linked to the same game in Pakistan has brought this question back into the spotlight: do violent video games increase the likelihood of violent behaviour?
Violent video games depict intentional attempts by individuals to inflict harm on others. Many emphasise negative themes in addition to killing people and animals such as foul language, obscene gestures and disrespect for women, law and authority.
Research has shown that violence in media including television shows, movies and online games may be a risk factor for aggressive behaviour, with video games being particularly harmful since they are interactive and encourage role play.
A basic principle of social learning theory is that children learn by observing and adopting the behaviours of those around them. Children who are exposed to violent games repeatedly may become numb to violence, imitate the violence, become confrontational and show more aggressive and disruptive behaviours as well as less empathy and helping behaviours.
Video games can also be harmful in other ways, for example, by reducing sleep time and sleep quality, causing nightmares, impairing school performance, reducing socialisation with friends and family as well as physical activities and taking time away from other hobbies.
It is important to remember though that in proportion to the millions of children and young people who enjoy video games, only a very small fraction ever turn to violence in real life.
In general, research has shown that the children most at risk for exhibiting violent behaviours tend to have other risk factors that make such behaviour more likely: violence and aggression in the family, parenting styles, substance abuse (in a family member or the child) and many other factors.
Certain personality traits, which may be inborn and later conditioned by the home or school, like being highly emotional, prone to anger, hostility, depression, and acting without thinking are also likely to increase the risk of violent behaviour after playing a violent video game for long periods.
There have also been conflicting studies that have disputed the link between violent video games and actual violence. Children with depression, anxiety, shyness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of video games since the games activate the reward system in the brain similar to gambling and some abusable drugs.
As with most aspects of parenting, when it comes to video games, the healthiest approach comes down to moderation and making informed decisions.
Parents should remember that with supervision, video games are thrilling, inspiring and can be lots of fun. But we need to be concerned if a child is exhibiting unhealthy gaming habits.
An obsession with gaming, inability to cut down gaming time for other activities, exhibiting withdrawal symptoms such as sadness, anxiety, irritability when not gaming, lying and deceiving about the time they spend gaming, getting tired due to staying up late and showing decline in grade, for instance, should be danger signals.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised “Gaming disorder” as a mental health disorder where gaming becomes the only activity in a person's life and is done to the neglect of everything else. If this happens, parents need to step in and seek professional help for their children.
What can parents and families do?
Having a family media plan to map out your child’s “media diet” can help. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen time for children less than 18 months of age and a maximum of two hours of screen time till five years of age.
For older children, anything more than a few hours a day is not a good idea.
Since the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has restricted many outdoor activities and online education is continuing, reducing screen time may be difficult but must be attempted.
Sleep times must be enforced as well as other hobbies and engagement in activities where young people can interact with peers in person rather than online.
For teenagers, experts recommend disallowing gaming in bedrooms and perhaps having a ‘gaming area’ in the home. Warning children about potential dangers of internet contacts while online gaming is also advisable.
Playing video games with children can be a way to share their experience, improve parent-child bonding and discuss the game content as well. There should be clear rules in the home about video game playing time and content.
Checking the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings to select appropriate games as per your child’s developmental level may get parents more involved in making sure that your child is not playing games unsuitable for his/ her age group. Parents also need to be role models for screen use and set a good example for their children.
Most children and youth, even avid video game players will never turn to violence in real life but this does not mean that parents and families should not be vigilant.
Video games, like all technology, are a wonderful tool for entertainment and learning. But our children, the offspring of a new, slightly scary ‘digital world’, still need our help and guidance to navigate their way safely through it.
Header illustration: Guillermo R. Vallejos/ Shutterstock.com