Do video games change kids’ behavior?

A mom says her kid gets mean when he can’t play his DS. But is it really the game that’s to blame? Photo by Flickr user GoonSquadSarah.

The press is rife with the message that video games make kids and teens more aggressive. Even though there’s no proof that gaming causes behavioral changes, and there is evidence that video games don’t harm, or even benefit, their players, this idea lingers. Empowering Parents recently conducted a poll, asking parents whether games “affect their child’s behavior.” Sixty-two percent said yes.

The poll quoted one parent, who said:

“My son, who is 9, doesn’t want to stop playing his DS … and when I finally manage to get it out of his hands, he gets mouthy, rude and acts more aggressively towards his brother and little sister. I’m actually considering banning video games from our house.”

I know it’s really challenging when your child is fixated on a particular toy, to the exclusion of family, books, sleep, homework — whatever. You want to do what’s right for them and limit their use of that toy, but kids can be so stubborn. Sometimes asking or setting down limits doesn’t work, and you have to intervene.

But it sounds to me like the problem here isn’t the game, or even the game system. Imagine if someone took your phone away while you were using it, or took a book out of your hands while you were reading it. You might get mouthy and rude, too — you might even get unruly with an innocent bystander, if you felt like the person who took the item out of your hands couldn’t be reasoned with (or yelled at). People who’ve just had their power taken away act out in a variety of ways, including the one this woman is describing in her son.

Kids don’t often feel like they hold much power, and when you do things that take power away from them, they frequently do things to reclaim that feeling of control. It might make more sense to collaborate with your son to develop some reasonable limits on using the DS — ones that he agrees to. Here are some excellent tips on how to approach it. Of course, “no DS at all” can be a consequence if he doesn’t collaborate with you. But don’t blame the game system for his behavior.

Unfortunately, Empowering Parents isn’t revealing many of the details of this poll. They aren’t sharing what questions they asked, or providing much description of the answers. They also made a very strange leap from “62% of respondents said that playing video games affects their child’s behavior” to “numerous studies suggest that virtual violence in these games may make kids more aggressive in real life.” (There’s a big difference between “affects behavior” and “makes kids violent,” folks.) Nevermind that their example quote mentions the DS — whose games feature cartoon violence at best.

Parents, have you noticed whether gaming affects your kid’s behavior in any way? If there’s a change, is it a good or a bad one? How long does it last? What have you done, if anything, to set limits on your kid’s video-game time or game choices? If you’ve done that, has it changed anything?


10 responses to “Do video games change kids’ behavior?

  1. My kids don’t play video games… they’re 4 and 5 and I consider them too young, and I much prefer for them to find something “real” to play with, or better yet, be outside. So the short answer is that I actually don’t know how playing video games would change their behavior.

  2. Yes, w/o question video games impact my kids’ behavior. For the worse, considerably. But it isn’t particularly the content of the games (language, violence, etc) that causes the issue… They act like turds when they’ve played games for a while whether they’ve been playing Mario Brothers or Brutal Legend or Club Penguin. It’s more the… short attention span, stimulus/response, closed system thinking, which is incredibly attractive compared to the complicated, messy outside world. You may notice a few grown ups find it appealing too.

    The idea of getting my kids to self-regulate on video games and your interpretation that it really about power I’m afraid to say is sadly laughable. I don’t know what else to say other than “you’ll see when you get there.” Not that we haven’t tried it in a number of different ways: letting them have an allowance of time they can spend per week, letting them go until they get bored w/ it, getting them to agree to a schedule and trying to reward them if/when they respect it, and so on… pretty much every time it ends in a fight. I simply think 9 year olds aren’t developed enough cognitively to have the impulse control. Again, plenty of adults, particularly in the 18-35 year old male demographic, can’t self-regulate here either.

    If there is any upside to it, it is that we hope we can help them develop those skills (self-regulation, the ability to stop doing something even if you enjoy it when it starts getting in the way of other aspects in your life) with something as harmless as a video games rather than when they encounter more dangerous yet alluring temptations later in life.

    • Floyd, thanks for your comment. I didn’t mean to imply that kids would self-regulate, but would agree to some level of limits/intervention in concert with the parents. That said, it does sound like the latter idea may not work so well, either. I agree that games are appealing and stimulating and comforting when compared to reality.

      I like especially that you say it’s the nature of gaming itself, not the content of games, that is the issue.

      It sounds like you have decided not to forbid all games, despite the frustrations and negative behavior you’ve experienced — why have you chosen to let your kids keep playing?

      • First the high-brow answers.

        Video games are a huge part of kids’ culture these days. To be a kid now and not be familiar with the cast of characters in the Mario games would be like for someone our age to not know who Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are. Having that cultural bond with other kids makes it much easier for them to make friends.

        Video game development is also attracting many of the brightest, most creative minds in the world now. Considering how formulaic and video game like film and a lot of genre literature has become, a case could be made that some of the most sophisticated story telling is happening through video games. That is exciting and I want them to have that cultural literacy.

        As I mentioned, there is also the training aspect. Impulse control, for starters, but also that our kids are going to live in a world where so much interaction happens through social networks and other virtual environments. They are developing the ideas of virtual personalities and avatars now through social gaming sites and what not. We are trying to encourage them to keep a healthy balance between their virtual selves and their real, meat-world selves so they don’t end up WoWers who regularly disappear into their bedrooms for days on end. Life is too short and the world too beautiful for that (though, again, I recognize the pleasure derived from a gaming binge, particularly when you are playing online w/ your friends… it is all about finding a healthy balance).

        The lower-brow answers:

        Video games are fun. I enjoy them, they enjoy them too, though sometimes it is hard to tell when they frustrated or stuck in a rut.

        I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometime we let them play because it keeps them out of trouble and occupied. It works better for our kids than cartoons do… They’re growing up with the expectation that media is to be participated in and collaboratively created, not just consumed.

  3. I don’t know about my daughter (who doesn’t play a WHOLE lot of video games, besides some fashion-related apps on the ipad), but if I play too much Katamari, I have to be careful when I’m driving to avoid trying to roll up lines of parking meters (or pedestrians or other cars etc.).

  4. I realise you know way more about the references for this topic than I do, but your statement:

    there’s no proof that gaming causes behavioral changes, and there is evidence that video games don’t harm, or even benefit, their players, this idea lingers

    is not backed up by the links you put in that sentence.

    I would not dispute for a moment that there are situations where video games are of benefit to the players – kids dealing with physical pain is one I know is researched locally to me, PSTD seems to be another. Neither of these situations applies to a “typical” player though – they’re fairly specialised uses where what the player’s brain is otherwise dealing with is far outside of average.

    The other links you had seem to apply to adults or college age teens, not to kids whose brains react very differently in lots of situations. Also, none of the research seemed to actually study real-world behaviour after video games. As I said, I don’t know the literature, but are there really studies showing that none of the things generally affecting behaviour – eg arousal level, attention span, compliance, etc. – are different after playing video games, even in children? If so, have these studies been done on specific populations eg different ages, kids with ADHD, hyperactivity, low-normal attention spans, etc.? If there aren’t, it would certainly be valuable to do!

    My memory tells me that there are studies that report attention span in kids is negatively effected by any screen time, be it TV, computer, or video game. This would match with the pediatrics’ association recommendations of no screen time for kids under 2 and very limited screen time for those older than that – and if there’s no relevant research what do they cite when making their recommendations? I know those things are generally said to be “evidence based”.

    I’ve personally seen the reactions kids appear to have after screen stuff, and I’ve gotta say I disagree with you on this one. I have no idea whether video games are any better/worse than TV or computer use, or whether the violence level in the game is significant at all, but to say there’s no effect at all seems to go beyond what’s actually backed up by evidence I’ve seen.

    • Thanks for this comment. Actually, none of the research that I’ve seen — either for or against video games — has done much to look at real-world behavior after video games. They study short-term effects in an experiment setting, and that’s it. (The link to the video-games panel includes a breakdown of why “real” studies can’t be done.)

      I didn’t mean to say — and I hope I didn’t say — that there are studies showing no effect. What I was trying to say is that the studies that DO show negative effects are a) flawed and b) don’t prove anything; they show correlation, not causation.

      Also, I’m not saying that the use of media has no effect. I’m saying there’s no proof that video games harm kids, and I’m saying that in this specific example, I suspect it was the mom’s interruption of the game play, not the content of the game itself, that triggered the child’s unruly behavior.

  5. saltysweetspice

    thanks for stopping by my blog…

    As my son is only 3, and newly turned 3 at that, I don’t have much experience with video games, but I do find the more TV time he gets the more aggressive his behavior. We live near Chicago & much of our winter time is spent watching Caillou, Mickey or the like while I do laundry, cook or clean.

    As Spring is approaching, I’m focusing more time on him & less time with the TV even turned on at night. He has been much less aggressive & we’ve both been happier.

    My point is, I’m not sure if it is the games themselves or the general infliction of media that causes the moodiness. Caillou is as benign of TV as there is, but the whine factor permeates the children who watch it. So even though the message of working through ones problems is received by the parents – the kids see the whiney child gets the attention – therefore the mimic what they see…

  6. The behavioral changes we see happen after any screen time – he just played chess on the lap top but it could have been a television the nintendo, any screen, the most violent game he has is ninja turtles for the original nintendo, he is nine, and after he plays (usually 30 min but could be up to a couple hours for a movie). He is smart and active, loves the outdoors, fishing, hockey, the sand box but after screen time he can’t focus, he makes noises, blinks his eyes steady, is much more irritable, more dramatic and quick to tantrum, soooo yes it does affect some. we play lots of board games and card games, done of the same that he plays on the comp, but he never had the after effects so there Is something with the screen time that does it i think.

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