Thank you for your energetic responses both in the comments section here on the Thrive blog and on Children’s Hospital Boston’s Facebook page to my recent post about Call of Duty and other violent video games; this is exactly the type of public dialogue that I was hoping for when I started my Ask the Mediatrician Web site last year. We all use media in different ways and have very personal opinions about the value it brings into our lives, but their use also impacts society as a whole, and my hope is for all of us to continue to question if we’re using them in a beneficial way.
Related to the some of the responses to the post that said I misrepresented some of the things that happen in the game, I acknowledge that, even though I play video games, I have neither the skills nor the practice time to be a great gamer, so Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was demonstrated to me—I have not played it. I used the air terminal scene as an example of the game’s content, about which those of you with greater gaming experience have far more precise information and experience.
I apologize for any inaccuracies in my description of where certain events occur or how points are scored. These mistakes were not intentional and distracted from the goal of the post, which was to offer parents information about the effects that research has shown violent video games to have, and to encourage them to make their own decisions about how to parent their children using that information.
Setting aside the specifics of this particular game, it’s important to address what the research shows about violent video games in general. As individuals, we draw conclusions based on our experience, but health research is necessarily held to a higher standard—it must be based on observations of large groups of people. Therefore, physicians advise against smoking not because every individual who smokes gets cancer, but because smoking cigarettes increases your risk of getting cancer. Similarly, many research studies have shown (here, here and here) that the majority of violent video game players do not go out and start shooting people—but they do show that those who view violent movies or play violent video games experience a consistent, measurable shift in their attitudes and behaviors toward greater fear and anxiety (especially in children), desensitization to suffering, and, in some, increases in aggression.
The positive and negative effects of media on children deserve special attention because children’s brains are different than adults’ brains. For example, while children can say that an experience is “only make believe,” developmental psychology has demonstrated that until they are about 7 or 8, children’s brains have not developed to the point where they can reliably distinguish fantasy from reality. Even with older kids, the major concern is not that they will unthinkingly copy what they experience in violent media but that these media (like all media) will affect their expectations for normal human behavior. That means that experiences with violent media are more likely to contribute to everyday bullying than to the rare school shooting.
Video games, which present environments and conditions to which the player must respond in certain ways to do well, function as “behavioral scripts” which the player practices over and over. Interactive electronic media that immerse participants in a “virtual reality” are among the most effective teaching technologies we have. What children do, they will learn. Content matters. Therefore, as a pediatrician, I would steer parents and kids toward video games that are sports-, logic-, or strategy-based, instead of those that center on violence. And, as Steve said, in the end, it is parents themselves who know their kids best. They know what’s best for their family and we are offering them information with which they can make their own decisions.
It’s been great to hear from all of you. Let’s keep the conversation going!