Even a little exposure to violent video games can provoke aggression over time

January 21, 2021
Video games can lead to aggression in teens, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Pakuma)

Video games can lead to aggression in teens, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Pakuma)

Even moderate extended exposure to violent video games can have an impact on the aggression adolescents express over time, a new 10-year study found, underscoring concerns about the influence of franchises such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto on young players. 

With global revenue from video games likely topping $200 billion within the next few years, gaming is one of the most popular entertainment options on the planet. But as violent titles reign supreme on sales charts, questions have persisted about the longer-term effects these games may have on adolescents.

The research, published Jan. 11 in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, examined 500 adolescents over the course of 10 years. The children were between ages 10 and 13 at the start of the study.

The study took a longitudinal model for the sake of examining a full history of gameplay over a longer course of time, according to Sarah Coyne, a professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and an author of the study.

“It’s not just a single episode or a single session that we spend playing video games, it’s a history,” Coyne added. “So that was the purpose of looking at it over such a long period of time.”

Participants completed a questionnaire at each wave of the study that had them list their three favorite video games. These games were then given a violence rating on a 0 (no violence) to 5 (extreme violence) scale using the Common Sense Media ranking of each title. Games such as Dead Rising and Gears of War rank at 5, while a colorful puzzle title like Bejeweled is a 0. A total of 789 different games were mentioned across all waves of the study.

The participants were also asked to describe how frequently they played video games and to respond to scales that measured aggression, anxiety, depressive symptoms and prosocial behavior.

Three groups of participants emerged from the findings: high initial violence (4%), who reported the highest frequency of violent video game play; moderate (23%), who reported a mid-level range of violent gameplay; and low increasers (73%), who began with the lowest levels of violent video game exposure. There was no significant difference in aggression or prosocial behavior between the groups at the outset of the study.

The largest group, which had the lowest initial levels of violent video gameplay, demonstrated a slight increase in that play over time. This group showed the healthiest behaviors and mental health outcomes when compared to the other two groups.

The high initial violence group, which was the smallest group, showed the highest levels of depression during early adolescence, which might suggest a pattern of using violent video gaming to cope with those depressive symptoms, according to the researchers. This group also had a dramatic drop-off in violent video gameplay during mid-adolescence, suggesting some degree of intervention either by the participants themselves or by their parents.

The middle group, which had moderate levels of initial violent gaming, showed the highest levels of aggression by the end of the study, a pattern that researchers said might be indicative of sustained exposure to violent gameplay predicting long-term aggression.

“There is a risk factor of a long history of playing violent video games at sustained levels,” Coyne said. “At the beginning of the study there were no differences in aggression between the three groups, and at the end of the study there were. That’s something to pay attention to.”

Coyne noted that while society tends to look at video gaming as an easy “scapegoat” following a violent real-world event such as a school shooting, it’s important to stress how there are many often unpredictable factors that can contribute to the development of violent behavior.

“There’s a lot of different things that contribute to violent behavior. I suspect that video games are a very small part of that, and so we shouldn’t overlook it,” Coyne said. “We’d be naïve to say video games have no effect at all.”

Previous studies have highlighted that games that have a competitive aspect can result in higher levels of aggression in the short term, and Coyne said that it’s possible that extended exposure to games that are “highly violent, highly competitive” that could create the long-term increase in aggression seen in the study.

Coyne said that the researchers plan to examine other kinds of video games in further longitudinal studies, with specific focuses on whether sexual content in video games has any kind of predictive effect on sexual outcomes over time and on how social-focused video games can lead to prosocial behavior and empathy. The goal of these studies is to see a wider breadth of the kind of influence that gaming can have on behavior, Coyne said.

“I think what happens is video games as a whole kind of gets painted with a negative brush,” Coyne said. “But there’s all different types of games out there and ways to play them, that can be good or bad, depending on context.”

The study, “Growing Up with Grand Theft Auto: A 10-Year Study of Longitudinal Growth of Violent Video Game Play in Adolescents,” was published Jan. 11, 2021 in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The article was authored by Sarah Coyne and Laura Stockdale, both of Brigham Young University.

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