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Violent video games teach children aggressive thought and behavior patterns

An Iowa State University study found that children who regularly play violent video games are more aggressive in real-life situations.
An Iowa State University study found that children who regularly play violent video games are more aggressive in real-life situations.
Bob Elbert/Iowa State University news service

Children’s thought and behavior patterns are influenced by the video games they repeatedly play, according to an Iowa State University study. The study, published March 24 in the journal Pediatrics, found that playing violent video games led to an increase in aggressive behavior in children.

Associate Professor Douglas Gentile, lead author of the study, likens regularly playing violent video games to practicing other skills that change thought patterns such as math or playing piano. “If you practice over and over, you have that knowledge in your head.” With violent video games, “ …you practice being vigilant for enemies, practice thinking that it’s acceptable to respond aggressively to provocation, and practice becoming desensitized to the consequences of violence,” says Gentile.

The study tracked 3,000 children in grades third, fourth, seventh and eighth. Over a three-year period, researchers collected data on the amount of time study participants spent playing video games, the level of violence in the games and changes to the participants’ behavior. Over time, children began to think more aggressively and respond to real-life situations as they would in a video game.

The study found no difference in the effect of playing violent games between boys and girls or among different age groups.

According to co-author Craig Anderson, psychology professor at Iowa State and director of the Center for the Study of Violence, violent video games reward aggressive behavior and provide practice in aggressive thinking.

“Practicing such aggressive thinking in these games improves the ability of the players to think aggressively. In turn, this habitual aggressive thinking increases their aggressiveness in real life.” — Craig Anderson, Distinguished Professor of psychology, Iowa State University

The study authors point out that while most children play video games, and most video games have some violent content, not all gaming is bad. A prior study conducted by Gentile and Anderson found video games that model pro-social behaviors such as caring and cooperating with others, can have a positive influence on children’s behavior.