A common question I get from mothers involves whether it’s ok to let their kids play aggressive video games and, if so, at what age. It’s a difficult question to answer because every family and child is different and what works for one family may not be right for another. Further, the question overlaps both moral and health related concerns. For instance, it’s entirely possible that a 6-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto V would have no impact on their aggression, but most of us would probably agree the game has so much adult content that it would be morally inappropriate for such a young child.
The good news is that, either way, whether a mom decides to be more or less restrictive, neither decision is likely to damage a child in terms of their mental development. People tend to like to complain about media and, too often, shame those who make decisions that are different from their own. Indeed, I tend to find that advocacy of government censorship or regulation of media tends to have less to do with helping one’s own family and more with forcing other families to make decisions we want them to make. This is likely one of the factors that has fueled a lot of misunderstanding about aggressive game effects.
In a just published study in Psychiatric Quarterly I examined the impact of aggressive game playing on serious aggressive behavior among 1340 Chinese adolescents. Playing more aggressive video games was not a risk factor for youth aggression. This study joins an increasing number of longitudinal studies that find little or no relationship between aggressive games and real-life aggression. Indeed, earlier this summer colleague John Wang and myself published another study of over 3000 Singapore youth that found no relationship between aggressive games and a range of aggressive and prosocial outcomes.
The issue of video games is often brought up after mass shootings perpetrated by young men, but this is foolish. Not all shooters are young men, and the issue of games is generally ignored when shooters are older men or, more rarely, women. Data from a Secret Service report on school shooters first published in the early 2000s, found that shooters tended to consume relatively lower levels of aggressive games and other media. Mass homicides are related to mental health (and, contrary to some claims, mental health issues are near universal among mass homicide perpetrators) and the easy availability of firearms among high-risk populations of angry, suicidal individuals.
Video games, whether aggressive or not, are best considered as similar to many hobbies or even sports (indeed eSports are becoming popular.) They probably don’t do anything astounding, either positive or negative. They don’t boost IQ or prevent Alzheimer’s on one hand, but don’t lead to any meaningful aggression either. Of course, people sometimes become frustrated when they’re losing at video games, but we also know people who throw the cards or chessboard across the room when they lose too.
Many youth use games, including aggressive ones, to reduce stress or socialize. Completely eliminating games can sometimes come at a cost of their own. Of course, game use should be balanced with homework, sleep, exercise and, for most youth, real-life socialization (some youth with autism or other disorders may be uncomfortable with real-life socialization and prefer online). Although there’s no firm time limit that works for all kids, setting limits, particularly requiring kids to do other activities first, before using games, is perfectly reasonable.
Mothers may also want to spend some time playing the games their kids enjoy. This serves several purposes. First, it’s a fun way to spend time with your child! Second, it may provide some understanding in what your child enjoys about the games. It’s a good opportunity to talk about the child’s motivation for gaming on one hand, but also to discuss any concerns about objectionable content that may emerge on the other. Third, it also gives mothers credibility when they decide a particular game won’t be allowed due to objectionable content. The worst thing is to overreact to a game based on something read in the news. News media often hype issues and misrepresent the content of many games.
If you decide to restrict an aggressive game from your family does this make you a bad mom? Not at all. Despite all the whining, your kid will most likely be fine. So too, the kid who’s mom lets him play Grand Theft Auto V will also most likely be fine. If one is trying to find compromise with a child, it may be fair to start with games with cartoonish violence such as Fortnite before moving to aggressive video games like Call of Duty or, at the outside, Grand Theft Auto (keep in mind that series also tends to have significant sexual content.) See how it goes and adjust accordingly. Ultimately, no one knows your child as well as you. You have to be confident in making the decisions that are right for your family.
For most families, this just won’t be the type of critical issue that determines a child’s mental outcomes. Frankly, they’ll come across far worse among their peers, certainly starting in middle school. Preparing kids for how to make good choices in their own lives is ultimately more valuable than attempting to bubble-wrap them from everything negative in the world of adults. Be informed, be knowledgeable of the ESRB age-ratings for games, talk to your kids about games and everything will be fine. Or if it’s not, it won’t be games that made it so.