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What is the relationship between violent video games and aggression in children?

Children playing video games

Press release issued: 28 January 2016

Worries about the negative effects of playing video games often appear in the news, and there are concerns that children playing such games may develop aggressive or violent tendencies later on. However, the research behind these claims is often conflicting, and the actual effects of playing video games are not well understood.

Rather than there being a clear link one way or another, a new study by researchers at Bath Spa University, Bristol University and University College London suggests a nuanced relationship between playing video games at an early age that might include violent content, and later development of aggressive behaviours during teenage years.

Using data from over 2,400 participants in Children of the 90s, the researchers looked at video game use at age 8/9 years, and subsequent associations with depression and risk of conduct disorder at age 15.

Conduct disorder is a psychological disorder that is characterised by a range of anti-social behaviours, including aggression to other people and destroying or vandalising property. The researchers looked at the types of video games that were being played, and developed a measure that took into account the degree of violence based on game content.

The results of the study showed that there was an association between playing games that were more likely to include violent content at age 8/9 and an increased risk of conduct disorder during adolescence, although the strength of evidence for these associations was weak, and the absolute risk of developing conduct disorder is small.

Overall exposure to games was not related to conduct disorder, and no associations were found between playing so-called ‘shoot-em-ups’ and depression.

In general, while the study suggested that there is an association between violent video game content and aggressive behaviour, the effect seems to be small. Moreover, it may be that violent game content alone is not a sufficient indicator of risk for later aggressive behaviours – instead, the competitive element in video games may be important.

The study highlights that there is a growing need for a more nuanced discussion around the effects of violent video games, and future research needs to take a more considered look at the effects of specific content in video games, as well as the context in which they are played.

What this study shows:

  • There is a weak association between playing shoot-em-up video games at age 8/9, and risk of developing conduct disorder at age 15
  • The absolute risk of developing conduct disorder is low
  • There is no association between playing shoot-em-up video games at age 8/9, and depression at age 15

What this study does not show:

  • It does not show that playing violent video games causes aggressive behaviour

Further information

The paper: Etchells PJ, Gage SH, Rutherford AD, Munafò MR (2016), 'Prospective Investigation of Video Game Use in Children and Subsequent Conduct Disorder and Depression Using Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children' is published today (28 January 2016) in PLOS ONE 11(1): e0147732. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147732.