Video games heighten risk of gun violence among children: study

video game
Kids exposed to violent video games show dangerously unsafe behavior around real weapons, according to a new study. (Pixabay)

Video game violence raises the odds of unsafe behavior around firearms among children, making education and parental vigilance key elements of the wide-ranging effort to curb gun violence, according to a new study.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the way children connect violence in games to real-life activity by monitoring their behavior after playing the game Minecraft. Researchers split a group of children between eight and 12 years old into three groups corresponding to three versions of the game: The control group played a nonviolent version, a second group played with a character equipped with a sword and the third played with a character that fired a gun.

After 20 minutes, the researchers turned them loose in a room full of toys and monitored their play. The room also had a cabinet which contained two hidden, disabled handguns capable of counting the number of times the children pulled the trigger.

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The results were chilling in two ways, said Brad Bushman, Ph.D., of Ohio State University, who co-authored the study. First, almost all the kids who stumbled upon the weapons touched them or played with them. That’s a fact that would come as a surprise to a lot of parents, he said.

“Parents are really bad at estimating what their kids are going to do when they find a gun—almost all parents say their kid will tell an adult about it immediately,” he says. In the study, that happened in only 22% of cases, and over half of all the kids in the study went on to touch the weapons after finding them.

More worrisome: The kids exposed to violence not only were more likely to touch the guns when they found them, they also pulled the trigger more frequently and were far more likely to be pointing the gun at themselves or their playmate when they pulled it. Children who played the gun-violence version of the video game aimed the guns at themselves or someone else and pulled the trigger three times as frequently as those exposed to the sword violence. The kids exposed to the nonviolent form of the game rarely displayed this behavior.

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Bushman points out that these results are likely conservative, given that ethical constraints forced researchers to use an age-appropriate game even as their subjects produced a list of their favorite games on which roughly two-thirds of the titles were directed toward more mature audiences. “If you find these effects after playing Minecraft for 20 minutes, they should be much larger for more-graphic games over longer periods.”

The study is part of an increasing body of literature examining the problem of firearm injuries as a public health concern. 

Given the obvious attraction kids and adults have to violent video games, they’re not going away anytime soon. Although they don’t appear to be a primary cause of gun violence, they do generate riskier behavior around firearms among children, which puts the onus on parents to stay vigilant about their children’s media diet and to be sure they store firearms safely.

Even these seemingly small steps represent the first fruits of a broader strategy as the healthcare industry gears up to treat gun violence as a public health issue. The Annals of Internal Medicine also published a clinical review Monday of the current research and recommended strategies for counseling and intervening to stem the tide of firearm-related violence and injuries. Now that long-impeded research has begun to move forward, clinicians and policymakers have a growing body of evidence to use as they fashion effective practices that are both politically and socially achievable.

Bushman agrees that safety and education are key components of that evolving strategy.

“Parents need to think about what their children consume in terms of media and not let them eat ‘junk food.’ So it’s important to reduce not only the amount of exposure but also the content of exposure—you should definitely not let your children be exposed to age-inappropriate material,” he says.