Do video games make kids violent, stupid and sick?

Suddenly, video games are blamed for a long list of social ills

Video games have occasionally served as a convenient scapegoat for whatever ails youth. But just this week, the normal trickle of blame has become a torrent, with loud proclamations from many quarters that computer games are making kids violent, stupid and sick.

Researchers at the University of Michigan published a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health this week that found "exposure to virtual violence increases the risk that children and adults will behave aggressively."

New Zealand's national manager of police youth services, Superintendent Bill Harrison, said this week that youth violence has "jumped" in the past two or three years worldwide, which he says coincides with the rise of advanced console games like the Xbox. His point is that better quality video games increase the realism of violence, which does a better job of desensitizing kids to the real thing.

The German Society for Scientific Person-Centered Psychotherapy this week publicly advocated a total ban on violent computer games.

The claimed link between games and violence is a direct result of the content of some games, which enables kids to spend hours in a fantasy world where they're rewarded for attacking, maiming or killing other virtual characters. However, the addictive quality of computer games, which can take time away from other activities like reading and exercise, are also blamed for causing problems.

In the International Reading Literacy Study league table for children's reading skills, England has dropped from third place in 2001 to 19th in 2006, and video games get much of the blame.

Video games are also blamed for obesity because they keep kids indoors and inactive.

NBC reporter Peggy Pico wrote that "Bone specialists say lack of milk, sunshine and outdoor exercise are causing a rise in rickets and broken bones in American children. Some blame too much indoor time on the computer, playing video games or watching TV for the growing problem."

Games are blamed not only for keeping kids up late, but also for disturbing their sleep when they finally go to bed. A study detailed in the Pediatrics journal this month found that playing video games even several hours before bedtime increases the time it takes for teens to fall asleep, and decreases the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep, during which time people form factual memories.

Games are even being blamed for England's poor showing in international soccer. "We would have the best team if we could go into every household and throw away every PlayStation, Xbox and video game," West Ham soccer goalkeeper Robert Green told AFP last week. Green "blamed the increasing popularity of video games among English boys for the country's failure to reach the finals of the Euro 2008 football championships."

What's wrong with the game blame

Interestingly, actual research is on balance quite neutral about the deleterious effects of gaming. For every study that shows a link between gaming and violence, for example, there's another study that shows no link.

The nonscientific blaming of games overwhelms the scientific. And I can't help but believe that blaming video games has more to do with the anxieties of people over 30 than it does with actual harm to people under 30.

For example, New Zealand's police youth services superintendent is certainly a credible commentator -- an expert in youth violence and its sources, right? But Harrison came to his conclusion not after reviewing statistics, but after watching his own 14-year-old son play Xbox.

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Mike Elgan

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