Do violent video games have an effect on childhood development?

Virginia Tech Shooter Cho Seung-Hui  was said to be an avid player of Counter-Strike, a popular team-based shooting game. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were fans of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, referring to the games in the videos they left for police to find after the Columbine massacre. Are you worried that your child is logging too much screen time in front of violent video games?

Ann Giordano in Denver, Colorado, who limits her sons’ PlayStation time to 30 minutes a day, said, “I find that when my kids, (ages 10 and 8), are done playing video games they tend to be more aggressive with one another and sometimes just plain crabby. We do not allow any videos that are overtly violent, but even with the milder ones, they’re usually shooting ray guns or driving and crashing cars plus listening to very loud music. I’m not sure why, but these fast-paced videos seem to make them more prone to acting out when the action is done. They get aggressive with each other, and as a result, they usually overdo it, then get in trouble by hurting one another.”

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Dr. Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University and co-author of the new book, “Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents,” is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on violent video games. In his research on their effects on childhood development, in one recent study he found that “it didn’t matter if the games the children played were outwardly violent. Even with cute characters and happy music, children were 40% more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior after playing.” (Source)

“What seems to be happening, and there’s a lot of research behind this, when you consume violent media—TV, movies or video games—for a brief period of time, you have somewhere in your head a whole bunch of thoughts that have to do with agreement, called a priming effect,” said Dr. Anderson. “In this country, by the time you’re five or six, most everyone has the knowledge of how to hurt someone, of fighting or shooting. When you think about aggression, that primes a whole region of your brain and primes knowledge about aggression in general. What that does is, if you’re thinking aggressive thoughts and are then put in a situation where there’s a provocation, even a mild provocation, it increases the likelihood that you’ll regard this as somewhat more serious and intentional. You’ll then respond with an aggressive response. This sort of priming effect occurs in all sorts of research today—not just with media violence. It’s a relatively short term effect that we’ve been seeing after children play violent video games.”

Long term effects: “Think of each time you do something as another learning trial. We know that repetition of any kind of decision making or thinking strengthens that particular way of thinking. If you want to memorize a telephone number, you may repeat it four to five times while you’re dialing and then you forget it. But if you repeat that experience every day for two to three weeks, you don’t need to look it up anymore.  Because of repetition it becomes a long term memory.

If you think about practicing making a decision to aggress against someone, like practicing multiplication tables, it’s really the same kind of learning. In both cases repetition is important. That’s why we think long term effects come about. It basically makes or changes a person. A child who watches a lot of violent TV and plays violent video games is practicing looking at the world as a dangerous place where violence and aggression are an appropriate response, more than a child would who hasn’t had that exposure.”

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Some danger signs to watch for: “If your child is getting into conflicts with other kids at school, or having difficulties with teachers, those things do become more common as children become more aggressive in general. However, those are very late warning signs. Much of the damage has already been done by that point. But if you’re seeing any of that, it’s an indicator that violent media should be restricted—but that’s a difficult issue as well and depends to some extent on age. A fifteen year old is much more difficult to deal with than a seven year old. Peers are very much in charge by the teen years but there are still things you can do in terms of discussing what the issues are. If the child already has a bunch of violent video games, discuss with them in an age-appropriate way the issue of the harmful effects of violent media, allow them to choose substitute games that aren’t violent that are now being banned in the household.”

Dr. Anderson is not against children playing video games, however. “I’m a fan of video games myself. I think they’re great teaching tools–or they can be. What they teach depends very much on the content. My kids grew up playing video games, but they didn’t play violent ones. Many of the games out there are educational. Some are not, but you still learn things from them like spatial skills, hand-eye coordination, and you get the added benefit of learning to be comfortable with computers. Still, it makes sense to set rules, regardless of whether it’s violent content or not. Limit the time. Children don’t need to be spending 15-20 hours in front of video games. Today’s kids are logging 40-50 hours a week in front of a screen, if you add TV and video together—more hours than they spend in school, and that’s not counting using the computer for homework. Kids need to be out playing with other kids and interacting with their parents, whether it’s playing board games, card games, reading, or playing baseball.”

If you’ve noticed your child exhibiting aggressive tendencies after playing video games, what is the best course of action? According to Dr. Anderson, reassuringly, “A kid who has no other risk factors for violence, and plays for an hour a day for a couple of days, he’s not going to become a school shooter. Extreme forms of violence like school shootings and kids who get into lots of fights—they occur only when there are multiple risk factors. If you look at the school shooters in Columbine, or Paducah, Kentucky or Virginia Tech, there are multiple risk factors present. Since we started thinking about media violence in the last couple years we’ve found it’s just one additional risk factor that increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. But people without risk factors, it might increase the likelihood of them getting into a fight at school, but it’s not going to turn them into a school shooter. However, with other risk factors present, it may increase the extremity of the kind of violence they might be willing to use if provoked. Instead of just slapping and hitting, they might consider doing much more serious damage, and using rocks or sticks or a knife.

What I typically suggest to parents is that they don’t allow violent video games in their home. If and when the issue comes up, that is actually a good opportunity to talk about their values, how to resolve conflicts and disputes in a non-violent way, which are useful conversations to have with kids. In any case it’s useful to convey your values to your children that violent solutions are not appropriate. Non-violent solutions can almost always be found.”


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

Comments (14)
  • Bez
    You can let your child play violent games, you just teach them that the things they are doing aren’t ok to do in real life, and when they do something violent, actually punish them instead of just saying “no”. Being a good parent and letting your young kids play semiMore violent games can co exist. Seriously, like not letting your kid play LEGO games?!
  • fluuuuu
    when was this article posted?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      fluuuuu Thank you for your question.  This article was originally published on May 28, 2008.
  • ngmnbvcxz
    I think lego games are good but cod 1 2 and 3 are vilent and gta 5 even i play cod 2 but not a lot
  • fhloston
    Beware of Yandere High School Simulator, a free computer download. This should be flagged as adult violent, it is about girls in high school killing eachother at school. Unfortunately, my kids are hearing that other Elementary kids are watching this on you tube, anything it takes to get 1M views?More Why are there no controls for the download? And why are school age children given pcs without supervision?
  • JadeBrunet
    I appreciate this article about the concern of video game violence. It is interesting to learn that by the age of 6, a child knows how to hurt someone. I find that limiting video game use could be an effective idea.  Something to consider would be to seek help fromMore a professional to aid the troubled situation.
  • TeryCruse
    I can't really say do games influence children or not. After reading this interesting article I decided to open this topic on our forum. If you're interested to talk about, welcome: It's quite an important topic not only to talk about. It's quite a popular topic to write essays about.More Students often write about Violent games and their influence the same as Violence is TV and Media.
  • MariaSmith1
    sometimes we forget how hard this can all be for a small child. Thanks for this insightful post. We have not had to move countries, but my kids do attend an immersion school.
  • BobPedian
    I think that games don't make someone more aggressive after playing. Instead I think some games like puzzle games or any game that poses any challenge can make someone frustrated: they can't beat a level, they keep dying, etc..Its a challenge and we face those every day. Maybe you giveMore up for a bit and move on. That person might be in a bad mood after that while they think of a way to get past whatever the obstacle is, in real life or a game. Ive played games for all of my childhood. I'm now in a great college and pursuing my dreams of helping the environment. I'm doing great, involved in clubs and am even an officer in one. I have no social skill damage and I have no violent tenancies. In fact, I consider myself to be a Buddhist. I grew up on violent video games, fantasy games, games with nudity, drugs, sword fighting, shooting, war. Its like watching a movie really, just one you can interact with. A movie doesn't make you more aggressive, at the end, when the conflict is resolved you breath a sigh of relief and walk out of the theater happy the good guys won, or happy about how scared you got, the suspense, whatever. In a game, that conflict resolution just takes longer because a game can be 100 hours or more.
  • Blomy

    Games are a modern thing, i just don't understand it. why cant a child get out and kick a soccer ball, its stupid.

    I'm a Grade 8 student and this really helped me with my Persuasive Speech on the current topic.

    Thanks Guys, your a great help to me.


    • Brianna Bocourt
      Because some kids prefer other things over sports, I personally never liked playing sports as a kid, I did play outside sometimes but what I mainly did was play games inside. They are fun. There are also games that are simulators in which you play sports.
  • Jorrel
    I think we should give them games but not too violent and brutal. Also we have to protect them from internet predators by using parental control software . I'm sure that parents will do everything to keep kids safe!
  • DSchulz

    Video games are overwhelmingly violent. I have an issue with the whole "LEGO" Line of games, just because the "violence" is lego bricks and not blood it doesn't get a bad rating but you are still running around and killing other people right?

    That being said, I noticed increased aggression in my 4-5 year old any time I stop screen time of any kind regardless if we had the time for 1 20 minute show or a whole movie. Now that my daughter is reading on her own, I find the same thing when I have to halt the reading time.

    The aggression could be a reaction to whatever focused task resulted in prolonged inactivity as opposed to the content of the focus.

    • Brianna Bocourt
      The LEGO line of games are the least violent games out there. If you think about it Mario kills animals, Pacman steals fruits, everything can be violent or inappropriate. Just don't milk it, that's my advice, don't give them the inappropriate games when they are young. Give them moreMore genres of games slowly as they age out of the most important parts of development.
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