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Video Games… Do they contribute to violence?

Our team at Digital Media Treatment & Education Center works with teens and young adults who are impacted in a negative way due to the compulsive use of the Internet and video games, specifically violent video games. The current debate is: do violent video games cause someone to become violent towards others?

In our experience, they are one of the core contributing factors, however, as you read through this, you will find that other factors more often than not, must be present for someone to act out in violence towards others. Let’s start by examining violent acts that have been committed.

Youth Violence and Video Games

  • 1999: shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado by two teenagers who played Doom, then a popular video game.
  • 2011: a Norwegian who killed 77 said later that he honed his shooting skills by playing many hours of Call of Duty.
  • 2012: Aurora theater shooter was reportedly “obsessed” with violent, role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Soldiers of Misfortune.
  • 2012: Newtown shooter played hours of the game Call of Duty, day in and day out.

You know what’s really exciting about video games is you don’t just interact with the game physically—you’re not just moving your hand on a joystick, but you’re asked to interact with the game psychologically and emotionally as well. You’re not just watching the characters on screen; you’re becoming those characters.

Nina Huntemann, Game Over

The New York Times recently published an article (“Real and Virtual Firearms Nurture a Marketing Link“) drawing the link between videos and violence:

Makers of firearms and related gear have come to see video games as a way to promote their brands to millions of potential customers.

Adding that,

Links on the Medal of Honor Warfighter video game site allowed visitors to click through the Web sites of the game’s partners and peruse their catalogs. ‘It is almost like a virtual showroom for guns’, said Ryan Smith, who contributes to the Gameological Society.’

One can see after reading this recent New York Times article how it is possible that playing violent games for hours and days at a time, along with being exposed to gun promotions and easy access to the gun manufactures online catalogs could increase the possibility of violent video games leading to gun violence.

It is important to recognize that there are many factors that can lead to violent acts by teens and young adults.

Violent Video Game Addiction

Compulsive video gaming can become a contributing factor to violence when:

  1. The young person plays violent video games for hours and hours every day of the week for months/years. (Desensitization theory proposes that repeated exposure to mediated violence reduces children’s sensitivity to violence.) AND…
  2. There are attempts by someone to intervene in the young persons gaming behavior. Teens and young adults have become physically violent when a parent attempts to or does interrupt their play by restricting the computer. They may physically harm the parent, destroy property, and threaten to or do harm to themselves, or run away.
  3. OR… The young person has access to weapons (e.g. guns, knives, bow/arrow)

When the young person has the risk factors described below combined with these factors, it is important to seek intervention immediately.

Risk Factors for Teen Video Game Addiction

  1. Excessively Introverted
    • Lacks strong social connections
    • History of bullying
  2. Isolated from family in the home
    • They play video games on a computer/TV that is away from others such as in their bedroom or the basement.
  3. Socially anxious and avoids others
  4. Excessive use of all screens from a young age; began gaming at a young age
  5. Impulsive
  6. Depressed
  7. Academic problems
    • Poor or changing grades
    • Truant
  8. Lack of structure and supervision by parent(s)

Dangerous Video Games

  • Call of Duty-Black Ops
  • Medal of Honor War fighter
  • Halo-4
  • Grand Theft Auto
  • League of Legends
  • World of Warcraft
  • StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

These games are some of the more popular games. Even the games approved for ages 13 and over, are violent in nature, have regular references to sex, and drugs and alcohol use.

One example of a game “approved” for those 13 and older is Batman: Arkham City

  • This action-adventure game features characters from the Batman Franchise.
  • Players assume the role of Batman. Punch, kick criminals, bloodstains, & female characters are dressed in form-fitting outfits that expose large amounts of cleavage; silhouette of the words, “live nude”.
  • Sexual tension: “sure could go get some porn now.”
  • Depicts characters smoking, references to alcohol: ” “I’d give anything for a nice cold beer right now.”
  • References to violence: “She got a little drunk and killed her classmates.
  • The words, “b*tch”, “a*s”, and “bastard” can be heard in the dialogue.

In light of what recently occurred in Newtown, CT, the fact that the game makers of Batman: Arkham City created dialogue referencing shooting classmates should be alarming to all parents and anyone who works with young people.  I doubt this is the only game with references similar to this. This highlights the importance of parents who purchase video games for their children to analyze and spend time viewing the game themselves before approving them for their children’s use.

Treatment for Addictive Gaming

Dr. Hilarie Cash, a national expert on Internet & video game addiction, recommends children do not start playing Internet video games until they have demonstrated recognized maturity and are in high school. I would like to highlight that—if the internet & gaming consoles-style games are violent in nature—I would encourage parents to withhold these until their child is in high school and at minimum 17 years old and, again, demonstrates a level of emotional stability and maturity.

Family Intervention

When our team prepares to support a family to intervene in their child’s video game addiction, we assess the child’s emotional and mental state, which includes any current diagnosis and history of treatment, history of violence and self-harm, as well as the parents’ ability to set and hold boundaries with their child.

Recovery Programs

Depending on the significance of the video game addiction and the co-existing problems, we may refer the young person to a treatment program that specializes in Technology dependency, such as Insight Intensive at Gold Lake in Ward, CO or Restart Internet Addiction Recovery progam in Fall City, WA.

Family Coaching Assistance

If treatment is not possible due to lack of financial resources, or not recommended, we may take a very slow approach to intervention with the young person and their family to ensure overall safety. We educate parents about the risks of violent video games, coach them on how to set boundaries in the home with their child’s use of computers, as well as build a connection over time with their child who is at risk and they begin to see the value of human contact, relationship with others, as well as feel less depressed and anxious, more motivated and interested in life outside of the computer.

Call us today for more detailed information about how we support families and young people who struggle with Internet addiction and video game addiction.

Negative Effects of Video Game Addiction

The reality is young people do get violent when they cannot play their video games. Research shows video gaming withdrawal behaviors similar to chemical addiction.

Video game withdrawal symptoms:

  • Increased irritability
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Overall anxiety

When an addict is withdrawing from alcohol and other substances such as, benzodiazepines, in significant cases they are at risk of dying if they do not have medical support around them.

Dangerous Behavior

Withdrawal from video game addiction will not cause someone to die due to seizures like the chemicals mentioned; however, it may induce a rage that becomes so out-of-control and irrational that the young people cannot control themselves. This can lead to suicide attempts, running away from home, violence towards parents and others.

Studies of Gaming Negative Effects

Research is finding that compulsive video game playing causes a shrinkage of the white matter in the brain, which is the area of the brain, that has to do with emotion and empathy.

A study found in, CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Volume 10, Number 3, 2007© Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2006.9942, found Negative effects of exposure to violence in online video games were detected. Playing violent video games was found to be significantly related to greater tolerance of violence, lower emphatic attitude toward others, and a higher level of aggression.

Common Co-Existing Issues

  • School failure
  • Social isolation
  • Increased phobias anxiety
  • Depression
  • Loss of employment
  • Increased alcohol/marijuana abuse
  • Increased aggression and violence in the home/community
  • Fantasies of “protecting oneself” by owning a gun or bow & arrow

These are the most common problems we find in our work with clients addicted to violent video games and the Internet. At Digital Media Treatment & Education Center, we are witnessing how the compulsive use of the Internet and violent video games are wreaking havoc in families and in the young person’s life.

Our team is hired by families to intervene and, thankfully, we have not experienced clients who acted out violently towards others, not yet anyway. Our concern however is, many parents do not understand how their child’s constant use of video games and the Internet is either causing or increasing their child’s maladaptive behaviors, and therefore, do not seek professional help to intervene.

How Schools Can Help

Schools are bringing in more and more technology and are struggling to understand how to promote healthy use of the Internet. Teachers and school counselors come to me at a loss about what to do. Those professionals on the front lines are experiencing concerns with technology use, such as video gaming and their students, but they can do little about it.

I encourage schools to educate their staff, as well as, parents about technology use and abuse. I encourage colleges and universities to require all in-coming freshman to take a class on healthy technology use, and to provide resources about where to go if they or someone they know is addicted.

Many school administrators and mental health professionals do not acknowledge this is a serious issue that negatively impacts the young people they work with, and therefore they are not speaking about it with their clients, their students, their staff, and the parents involved. Professional who are on the front lines and work with our young people must get educated and develop effective interventions and approaches when it comes to compulsive use of violent video games and the Internet. The more professionals understand, the more young people and their families we can help.

How Parents Can Help

There is shame and guilt about being “addicted” to the Internet and video games. Many parents and young people feel alone with this problem because no one is talking about it.

We can’t stress enough to parents and professionals who work with young people the importance of educating yourself about video game and Internet addiction.

Educate yourself about the games children are playing and what they are exposed to. Educate yourself about the strong draw to the Internet, social networking sites, chat rooms, pornography, YouTube videos, etc.

Video games are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. But people learn. And content matters.

Psychological Bulletin; 2010, Vol 136, No. 2, 151-173

If you would like to talk about the issue of violent video games and the Internet, contact us. We would love to connect.

Tracy Markle, MA, LPC

Collegiate Coaching Services; Owner & Clinical Director

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