Video games often get a bad rep for causing all sorts of problems among youth. Violence in games especially concerns some people, but is the concern justified?
A recent study found that children with depression or attention deficit symptoms were no more likely to bully others if they played more violent video games.
They also were not at a higher risk for delinquent behaviors, such as stealing or getting into fights.
These findings cast doubt on the idea that playing too many violent video games will cause a child to become aggressive themselves.
This study, led by Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at Stetson University in Florida, looked at the possible effects of video game violence on children who are already at risk for mental health conditions.
The researchers studied 377 children, with an average age of 13, who had higher than average symptoms for depression or attention deficit.
The children had not necessarily been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a depression disorder, but they were determined to be at higher risk for a mental health condition.
Among the children, 182 had increased attention deficit symptoms and 284 had increased depression symptoms, including 89 children with both. The children were racially diverse and came from both suburban and urban schools.
The children were asked to list five video games they "played a lot" in the past six months, and these were weighted by the researchers based on their Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings.
These ratings, on a scale of 1 to 5 ("Mature" is 5), consider language, sexual content, violence and references to drugs and gambling. Violence tends to play the biggest role in the ratings.
Among the most common games reported by the participants were games from the Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat series.
The researchers used this information and the time children spent playing to estimate their exposure to video game violence.
Overall, only 6 percent of the participants had not played any video games in the past six months, and only 11 percent had not played any violent video games.
This information was analyzed along with how involved parents were in their children's media use (sharing time or supervision) and how much support the participants reported having from family and peers.
The researchers also considered the children's stress levels, amount of bullying of others and delinquency, which referred to both physical aggression and general troublemaking (e.g., stealing, vandalism, skipping school, etc.).
The researchers found that children with increased depression and/or attention deficit symptoms were no more likely to bully others or to have more delinquency problems based on their exposure to violent video games, compared to those with less exposure.
Children with increased depression and/or attention deficit symptoms were only more likely to have delinquency problems if they also had high stress and aggression levels — independent of whether they played violent video games.
Interestingly, there was a small bit of evidence suggesting that highly aggressive children with attention deficit symptoms who played violent video games were actually less likely to bully others.
"Our results indicated that violent video games were associated with neither delinquent criminality nor bullying behaviors in children with either clinically elevated depressive or attention deficit symptoms," the researchers wrote.
They also did not find that children with higher aggression levels were more likely to have problems if they played more violent video games.
"Our results did not support the hypothesis that children with elevated mental health symptoms constitute a ‘vulnerable’ population for video game violence effects," the researchers wrote.
Glen Elliott, MD, PhD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said this study is unlikely to resolve a debate about video games and violence that has raged for at least three decades.
"Still, they have produced a solid piece of work that fails to show any kind of link between playing violent video games and being violent or delinquent, even among children who might be more vulnerable to such effects because they have depression or ADHD," Dr. Elliott said.
"Critics will correctly point out that the study does not prove such a link never occurs, and, as a parent and a professional, I would still recommend monitoring what games a child is playing and whether behavior seems different after prolonged play," Dr. Elliott said.
"That said, these result should help to allay fears of parents who worry that even brief exposure to violent content can ruin their child’s future," he said.
This study was published in the August issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Information on funding and disclosures was unavailable.