Culture

Note to Matt Bevin: There Is No Direct Link Between Video Games and Teenage Violence

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

After a teenager killed 17 people at a Florida high school, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin is blaming violent video games. “We need to have an honest conversation as to what should and should not be allowed in the United States as it relates to the things being put in the hands of our young people,” Bevin said.

The governor is calling for restrictions on all violent games and movies:

“I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and right to free speech, but there are certain things that are so graphic as it relates to violence, and things that are so pornographic on a whole another front that we allow to pass under the guise of free speech, which arguably are,” Bevin said. “But there is zero redemptive value. There is zero upside to any of this being in the public domain, let alone in the minds and hands and homes of our young people.”

Pointing the finger at violent video games isn’t anything new. We hear it after every shooting like this. But do the facts back up the speculation? Correlation isn’t causation, so we can’t just assume kids who are shooting up characters on a screen are going to kill people in real life. We need evidence.

Let’s consider some facts. A couple of years ago after a shooting in Munich, USA Today published an article that cited several studies on this issue:

In truth, there’s no evidence to connect violent video games to violence in society. Several studies, such as by psychologist Patrick Markey and economist Scott Cunningham, have linked the release of popular violent video games with immediate declines in societal violence. Correlation between the consumption of these games and societal reductions in youth violence were well established, but these newer studies suggest there may be some causal element to this.

Studies of youth also call into question whether a link between violent video games and aggression exists. In a 2015 meta-analysis of studies examining video game effects on youth, little evidence emerged for causal links between violent video games and behavioral problems in youth. Likewise, studies have not supported that a population of youth exists who are “vulnerable” to game effects. One recent study from the University of Missouri found that neither young adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum nor neurotypical young adults became more aggressive when exposed to violent video games. Nor, in a study I conducted with Cheryl Olson, were these games associated with bullying or delinquency among youth with pre-existing mental health symptoms.

This isn’t to say all studies agree. A study in Canada found that long-term engagement in shooter games can damage the brain. Some psychologists have found that there’s a correlation (that word again) between violent video game use and aggressive behavior, as well as making some people less empathetic.

“No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently,” an APA report says. “Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.” In other words, a relatively healthy person playing video games is not going to suddenly become a school shooter.

Some people have assumed that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more prone to become violent by playing video games, but, as stated above, this has been debunked in a study at the University of Missouri.

After shootings like this, we often hear rumors that the shooter was autistic. This time it’s no different, forcing the Autism Society to issue the following statement:

Some media outlets and social media messages are suggesting the individual arrested for these killings may have autism. In some news reports, the reporting of his diagnosis may imply a linkage of an autism diagnosis and committing violence. No reliable research has found that a person who is autistic is more likely to commit violence than a person without an autism diagnosis. In fact, existing research finds that autistic individuals are more likely to be victims of violence than those without an autism diagnosis. There is no confirmation of the diagnosis of the individual arrested.

We ask that those reporting about this tragic event not suggest or imply any linkage of autism and violence. Implying or suggesting that a person who is diagnosed with autism is violent is not only wrong but hurtful to the over 3.5 million individuals living in the United States and any other individual with an autism diagnosis.

After mass shootings, generalizations and accusations fly, including blaming graphic violence on all increases in societal violence. Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University, however, has not found any clear relationship between the two.

“Unfortunately sometimes politicians, advocates and even some scholars would present it as a lot more consistent than it actually was and I think the general public was often misinformed about this body of research,” he said. “There are certainly some studies that suggest there may be at least some small aggression effects, but there are also studies that suggest effects don’t exist, or that violent media may even reduce aggression.”

Some people think there is no value in video games at all, but this has been found not to be true. Studies show that playing video games can make people more self-aware and even happier as they develop competence in a skill, such as shooting; interact with others who are doing the same thing; and learn how to make decisions in intense situations, as players are given many choices on how to proceed.

They’ve also been found to improve eyesight, not make it worse, and fix attention problems. Daphne Bavelier, an expert in brain and cognitive sciences, has debunked many negative assumptions about video games.

“Action video game players have many other advantages in terms of attention, and one aspect of attention which is also improved for the better is our ability to track objects around in the world,” she said. “This is something we use all the time. When you’re driving, you’re tracking, keeping track of the cars around you. You’re also keeping track of the pedestrian, the running dog, and that’s how you can actually be safe driving, right? … Action video games have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, vision, etc.”

When you take all of this information together, we simply can’t say there is a direct link between violent video games and aggression. The changes in the brain, however, which might have no effect on most people, could be a risk factor for someone already suffering from an underlying mental illness, especially one prone to violence. This, joined with many other risk factors, such as a broken home, bullying, abandonment, etc., could trigger one individual out of millions to become a mass killer.

The bottom line is removing one risk factor probably won’t change the outcomes or create the solutions we’re looking for, and it would be too high a cost when it comes to the freedoms of others. The best solution is for parents to take responsibility to monitor their children and be aware of how things like video games are affecting them, train them to be self-controlled, and get them help when there is any sign of mental illness or emotional problems.

Schools and civic associations, such as churches, are support mechanisms to the parents to oversee children and intervene when there’s evidence a child is troubled. It is also their responsibility to make sure schools are safe, entrances are monitored (electronically, if possible), and authorities within the schools are trained and equipped to defend students when necessary.