This is a guest post from Greg Toppo, author of the book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. He is USA Today’s national education reporter.
More than 15 years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that intensive media coverage of suicides may serve to “tip the balance” for at-risk young people who are considering suicide. Research suggests that consuming this type of media makes vulnerable people feel that suicide is “a reasonable, acceptable, and in some instances even heroic, decision.”
Since the vast majority of school shootings are perpetrated by young people who are already suicidal, coverage of these attacks—especially coverage that focuses on the perpetrators, not the victims—normalizes them. It doesn’t “make” them do it as most people believe, but it shows them that they’re not alone in wanting to kill themselves in such a way.
Real-world media coverage is more dangerous than video games.
In the book, I examine decades of research, essentially all of which shows that video games have just the opposite effect that most people think. Violent crime rates drop when violent games are released or when new video game stores open, for instance.
Even as the number of young people playing violent video games has skyrocketed over the past two decades, juvenile crime rates have plummeted. This is not to say that games prevent crime, but if there were any correlation between rising gaming rates and crime, we’d have seen it by now, since nearly every young person now plays video games. We haven’t.
Look at your children holistically.
If parents fear that their child is becoming more violent, they should look at the issue holistically. I don’t doubt that for troubled kids with a lot of risk factors, hours and hours of unsupervised violent video game play without the assistance of someone to help interpret or process the violence can be harmful. But even among these kids, in the vast majority of cases, the play is actually serving as a protective factor (more on that below).
If parents are worried, they should look at everything that’s happening in their child’s life. Is violence present in the home, in the neighborhood, in the school? Does the child have any other way to process fears and anxieties than through media? Is the child suffering from an untreated or undiagnosed learning disability, anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder? Is the child being bullied or abused? Does he feel unsafe in general? If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, that’s the place to start.
Video games help kids cope with stress rather than cause it.
The media that he’s consuming is almost always the thing that’s least responsible for violent behavior and often the thing that’s helping him cope with life’s stresses. In fact, says media theorist Henry Jenkins, a child who responds to a video game the same way he responds to a real-world trauma could be showing symptoms of being emotionally disturbed. In that sense, a violent game could actually serve as a kind of affordable and efficient diagnostic tool.