A new study finds that teens who play violent video games are more aggressive than those who don’t. Or does it? Photo by Flickr User soleface23.
A new longitudinal study of 1,492 teens at eight high schools in Canada looks at those who play violent video games regularly, and those who don’t, and asks them questions about their behavior. Here’s what Brock University researchers Teena Willoughby, Paul Adachi, and Marie Good say they found:
Sustained violent video game play was significantly related to steeper increases in adolescents’ trajectory of aggressive behavior over time. Moreover, greater violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. In contrast, no support was found for the selection hypothesis. Nonviolent video game play also did not predict higher levels of aggressive behavior over time.
Right now, there’s no way to access the full study without paying for it, and the writeups in the Telegraph and Kotaku don’t shed a lot of light on the study’s details. Importantly, though, Kotaku did ask:
However, the study leaves open the distinction between correlation and causation. Publicly available materials leave unclear in which direction the link might actually go: do the games cause teenagers to act aggressively, or are teenagers with aggressive dispositions more likely also to play violent games?
(In that light, it’s important to note that the Telegraph’s headline, “Violent video games make teenagers more aggressive, study finds/Teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people as a result, a new study has found” is misleading.)
At any rate, I do wonder how this study went down, and that’s partly because I’m familiar with the work of Jonathan Freeman. In his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, he points out that when study subjects are given permission to be more aggressive, they are more likely to be. (If you click through to that link, you can see some examples of what he’s talking about.)
Now, not all the kids in the Brock study were aggressive. The researchers found that only the teens playing violent video games became more aggressive; the ones playing nonviolent games weren’t aggressive. But here’s the thing: did the kids know what was being studied? Do they know, by now, that many people think violent video games make you violent? If so, wouldn’t that seem like a kind of permission, at least to a teenager? At the very least, maybe they are unconsciously living up to some kind of expectation.
It’s also a concern that kids are self-reporting their actions, without any objective measure to back up what they’re saying. Maybe those who play violent games are more comfortable with aggressive behavior, and with reporting it. Or maybe they think it’s cool, so they brag about little incidents, or exaggerate and say they were aggressive when they weren’t. Teens are trustworthy plenty of the time, but there could be enough in a study like this, who may not take it seriously, to skew the results.
Or, as Kotaku points out, it may simply be that kids who are more aggressive in general are also drawn to video games where aggression is okay. Which brings us to another question: How much more aggressive are aggressive kids who don’t play violent video games? That’s worth studying, too.
By the way, Backward Messages may be taking a little vacation over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post if I can, but things may not be back to normal until early November.