Photo: Halo, Dead Rising 3, Call of Duty: WWII, Fortnite
We all know of [the] problems that video games can [cause]. And we haven’t done anything about it. Because it was [another] family, not mine. But unless we start to learn from some of these societal mistakes, we are going to repeat them.
— Judge James Burge in his ruling during the trial of a 16-year-old boy who shot both his parents after they took away his favorite video game, Halo III.
Mean. Angry. Depressed. Violent. These are words that a recent group of parents used to describe their sons, ages 8-15, who are struggling with video game overuse. “I’m afraid of my son.”
These parents of seasoned gamers can tell you stories of fists through the wall, controllers through the screen, and outbursts of foul language. One mom even shares the time her 16-year-old son put her in a choke hold on the floor when she told him to get off his video game.
Since 1952, a plethora of findings concludes that media violence contributes to violent behavior. But these parents don’t need a study to validate what they already know to be true: Video games change our kids, and immersion in violent games make children more aggressive.
How Did It All Start?
Every human being is born with a “safety catch” —a natural aversion to killing a member of one’s own species. This is why the U.S. military found it necessary to develop first-person shooting simulation technologies as a way to desensitize and train new soldiers.
By using a psychological process called operant conditioning, the stimulus response behavior of shooting a human on the screen is repeated over and over until it becomes ingrained and automatic. This is how shooting becomes a conditioned response, overriding the inborn safety catch to kill another human. Under the strict structure and discipline of the military their rules of training, we win wars and stop the bad guys. It works.
However, this same training and conditioning are also found in first-person shooter video games. The story line has changed, but the stimulus-response behavior of shooting a human on screen is the same. Over time, video game designers started building more and more of this type of simulation into what we see in today’s popular video games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, to name a few. They capitalize on the natural human instinct to seek out violence, drawing the player further into the game.
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is the nation’s kill specialist, a retired West Point psychology professor and author of many books including: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, The Assassination Generation, and more. He explains why we are drawn to watch violence. “Survival in nature has always depended on the human brain adapting quickly to changes in the environment, and violence is the ultimate survival data… If there is violence in their environment [like a schoolyard fight or media violence], children are driven to witness it so they can adapt to it as quickly as possible.” (1)
“There is a biological impact of violent video games on developing human brains,” Grossman says. “Social learning, role models, and our powerful innate need to search for survival data all combine to make violent video games attractive, addictive, and extraordinarily powerful tools to train our children to become violent human beings.”
Do violent video games train our kids to kill in real life?
Without proper training, a child doesn’t know how to shoot a gun, hit a target, or have the emotional strength to override his inborn hesitation to kill another human. The average teen would never be able to operate a gun and hold it steady enough to open fire on a group of people. But with consistent and dedicated time spent training in the video game simulator, that child is able to overcome his inexperience and retrain his natural emotional hesitations. What’s missing from these video games are the guardrails: the structure, discipline and training programs provided by law enforcement officials. Have you ever seen a police officer open fire on a crowd? No. Because the officer has had extensive training.
If a child spends hours a day immersed in violent video games and is missing this formal, disciplined training as well as protective factors such as healthy family attachments, community, and life purpose, the chances for chaos will reign increase. Will every gamer become a killer in real life? No, of course not. But the truth remains, violent video games train our kids to kill the same way video games train soldiers to kill.
In the “Classroom Avenger” study compiled by Dr. Jim McGee, an FBI consultant who studied 19 juvenile school killers, he found that the one thing the killers had in common was a complete immersion in violent video games and violent movies. Juvenile mass murderers in Europe were noted to have the same consistent traits.
Gone are the days when we can pretend that violent video games are neutral for children. As is true with any addiction, the younger a child is when immersed in violent media, the more the brain will be affected.
The Human Brain on Media Violence
Violent video games affect the player’s brain on a biochemical level. The stress triggered by the fear of being killed in a video game shuts down the forebrain, or logical brain, and stimulates the midbrain, or mammalian brain. This part of the brain can be easily trained to respond to a stimulus with repeated practice much like you train your dog to do tricks. Teens who play thousands of hours on violent video games must seek to kill other humans in order to win the game. This provides a platform for the player to be classically trained to kill outside of the game if the stress in his life reaches a trigger point. This is why most, if not all, of the current mass murderers have a gaming background. They were trained to kill on the game.
Grossman explains how violent visual imagery affects the young mind:
The kids watching horror movies and playing brutal games have been taught to associate the death and suffering they see with their popcorn, candy bars, sodas, and the scent of their girlfriends’ perfumes. We have millions of children who have been classically conditioned from their youngest days to take pleasure from human death and suffering. To them, at a deep, primal level, human death and suffering is a source of intense pleasure.
These children are not merely “desensitized” to violence. Coroners and homicide detectives get desensitized, but they never take pleasure from the violence they witness. These kids are taking pleasure from it. (2)
In summary, violent visual imagery causes stress which in turn triggers the fight flight system in the midbrain. This causes the frontal cortex, the area of higher thinking in our brain, which controls everything that makes us human, to shut down, leaving the midbrain in charge. When the child has been trained to kill human targets on a video game, his marksmanship becomes accurate, he is desensitized, and he can transfer this training to a real life scenario if the stress in his life escalates. While most gamers do not turn into killers, you can see how the ones that do get their training.
Elementary Age: Real Vs. Fantasy
At this age, the underdeveloped brain is unable to determine what’s real and what’s fake. Even reports from the recent trend in voice-activated technology say that young kids believe the voices from those devices are real people and can’t mentally draw a distinction. It is common for children to mimic a superhero seen on TV or act out in a game such as cops and robbers, but immersing in violent roles in video games that simulate killing crosses the line.
What your child needs instead: To engage in free-play outside, to build in-person friendships, and to use his or her own imagination in real life instead of mimicking what is on the screen.
Middle School: Cool at All Cost
Middle schoolers can easily become addicted as they play video games to fit into their peer group, relieve boredom, and escape hardships. There is a lure for this age group to do ‘edgy’ things together and to share in the discovery of novel behavior with friends. During this socially awkward age they also tend to gladly trade non-tech activities for more game time.
They may begin to quit sports and non-tech hobbies as they find more solace and success in the virtual world of their favorite game. Their love for violent video games lines up perfectly with their strong desire to fit into their peer group, and this perfect storm is paving permanent habits before the onset of puberty. In addition, as their self-identity is being formed with violent and often sexualized images from games, they can easily confuse healthy masculinity with hurting and controlling others.
What your child needs instead: Lots of movement and exercise, balanced extracurricular activities and hobbies, healthy screen-free social interactions, and leadership from loving parents to place heavy limits on gaming activity.
High School: Low-Effort, High-Reward
During this stage, teen gamers are growing more desensitized to violence and graphic images. Empathy is not being practiced and there’s a good chance they are isolating themselves from the family. The development of real-life skills, including chores or a weekend job, are being replaced with excessive screen time. Don’t expect your child to outgrow the game without your help.
Pediatrician Meg Meeker states, “In America, we have so distorted what we expect from teens that we have come to see isolation as a normal part of teen development. It isn’t. It is a red flag for depression — and any parent with a son who spends hours upon hours alone in his room, be warned. This is not healthy or normal behavior, so don’t let friends convince you that it is.” (3)
What your child needs instead: Time with parents, a job, strong community, and social skills. The relationship and connection to parents is more important during the teen years than attachment to friends or video games.
5 Tips for Parents with Gamers
Follow the ratings: Game ratings are set by the companies who make the game. Be sure you are not setting your standards lower than theirs. For example, Fortnite is rated for 13+ but very few families follow that rating. Some (especially your kids) will argue that it isn’t as bad or as violent as a game like Call of Duty. But, blood or no blood, this game is violent and human avatars are being shot. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on virtual violence, “Cartoon violence can have detrimental effects…first-person shooter games are not appropriate for any child…violent video games teaches children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.” (4)
Know the game: Watch the game with your child for a few hours to experience what he/she is experiencing and make sure it aligns with your values.
Enforce limits: Kids tend to overdo things when limits are not in place. They also cannot pull away from the temptation of the game on their own. Some limits to consider: No gaming during the school week, no games in the bedroom, no games on their tablets or phones, no games on their school laptop. Many parents choose a game-free home to eliminate the conflict altogether.
Don’t follow the crowd: Just because a friend’s mom allows mature games in their home, doesn’t mean you do.
Turn it off: If you argue about video games with your teens, remove the games. Go cold turkey*. Read how to do this in our book, The Screen Strong Solution. Many parents have found this to be the best solution of all.
Remember, video games are not a necessary part of childhood. The younger the kids are when they begin playing violent video games, the more their sense of self will be shaped by these games. The longer you can wait to introduce the video games, if at all, the better. If you are still having second thoughts about introducing violent video games to your child, ask yourself this one question: Does the game make my child a better person? If your answer is no, put the game back in the box. Childhood is short. Protect it.
- Dave Grossman, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing (Little, Brown and Company, 2016), p. 60.
- Assassination Generation, p 55.
- Meg Meeker, Boys Should Be Boys 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons (Ballantine Books, 2008)
- American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Virtual Violence: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/07/14/peds.2016-1298
*Disclaimer: If your child is showing violent tendencies or you feel like your child will potentially do bodily harm to you, himself or herself, you need to seek professional help before removing the game.
Listen to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman read an excerpt from Assassination Generation HERE
If you want more information on raising teens without video games, get our book Will Your Gamer Survive College?
To learn how to be a ScreenStrong family, then get your copy of our latest book The ScreenStrong Solution: How to Free Your Child from Addictive Screen Habits. This simple, step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of reclaiming your kids from digital devices so you can reconnect with your family.