A discussion about the effect of media violence on society was briefly held after the atrocities of the Newtown shootings. Lately the conversation fizzled while our attention was fixed on other things. Let’s restart it.
Does watching violence, listening to angry music or playing violent video games lead to violent actions? From everything I’ve read, the jury is still out on whether consuming violence leads to violent actions.
But maybe we should flip the question and ask it another way – maybe we should ask ourselves if the hours we spend playing and watching violent media would be better spent doing something else. If the answer is an easy yes, isn’t that saying something?
I know, I know. I’m sympathetic to the argument that it’s ok to spend some time on entertainment. Even frivolous entertainment. My children, who are between the ages of four and 12, play age-appropriate video games that involve shooting – like Lego Star Wars – but they are not allowed to play games that include blood, guts and gore.
Some of their friends are, and that makes me uncomfortable. I always let parents know when I drop my kids off at playdates that my children are not allowed to play games that are violent.
I was struck by an article I read recently by a man who admits to carrying a gun into his school as a teen in the 1990s, before the Columbine shootings. He did not play violent video games, and he thinks that is part of the reason why he didn’t go from being an angry teen to being a murderous teen.
He is now a teacher, and had this interaction with two students:
“I was walking behind two teenage boys in the hall at my high school the other day and I heard one talking about slitting someone’s throat. He said, ‘I just came up behind him, pulled out my knife so quietly and cut his throat.’ The other boy said, ‘Yeah, then I killed everyone else in less than, like, 10 seconds. Just slaughtered them.'”
His post is illuminating, and worth reading.
In January the Hartford Courant ran an op-ed by psychology scholar Christopher J. Ferguson under the headline, “No Link Between Video Games, Violence.”
As with most academic studies, there is some hair splitting. Video games are not directly linked to violent criminal activity, according to Ferguson’s research. However, there is a link between violent video games and feelings of aggression according to other research.
Conclusion: Psychology research is often squishy, and we need to be careful about the headlines we write.
I was struck by a paragraph in an article by Forbes writer Erik Kain, who reports on video games and the gaming industry.
“All that being said, I freely admit that I’m bothered by violence in some games… These games are violent for the sake of violence. And when people play them they rarely think about what any of it means. I believe that fiction in video games, novels, and film can all serve to increase our capacity to empathize with others. Violence doesn’t make this empathy impossible, but violence without substance certainly doesn’t help either.”
We need to think about this – especially when it comes to what children watch and play. While I believe it should be left up to parents to decide what their children do, we as parents need to take that responsibility seriously.
According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, children between the ages of eight and 18 spend almost eight hours a day consuming some form of entertainment media.
Did your jaw just drop? That’s over half of most children’s waking hours. Or an average work day.
The same study says only three in ten children have any rules about what video games they can play.
I’m not suggesting we need a law that governs what games we can play. I’m glad the games have ratings so we can be smart consumers, but I don’t think a law is going to make any difference at all in how much time our kids spend playing violent video games.
That’s the problem here – if I thought there was a law we could pass that would stop what happened in Newtown from happening again, I would fight for it in every state capital and in Washington DC to protect my children and other children from this senseless, brutal violence.
I haven’t found a law yet that I think can do that. What happened was against the law, but that didn’t stop someone from killing 27 people. I also don’t think we necessarily need another academic study to tell us whether watching violence makes us more violent. Can’t we just use some common sense? Playing violent video games for hours every day, or watching violent video games for hours every day is not good for your soul. So find something that is.