From comic books to that new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll and those dangerous role-playing games, it seems that there’s always some new form of media threatening to tear apart the fabric of civilized society and corrupt the minds of the innocent. As a form of expression that is still relatively young, and which has a tendency to veer towards combative or competitive play, video games have been the bogeyman du jour on and off more or less since their inception.

On a more positive note, this attitude does feel like something that is starting to wane. A recent UK survey found that people who believe video games have a dangerous or damaging impact are predominantly older people and those who either rarely or never play video games, and in 2011 video games received First Amendment protection from the Supreme Court that should safeguard them from being banned or censored in the USA.

Some new light has been cast upon this issue by a longitudinal study carried out at the University of Glasgow and published in academic journal ADC, which surveyed 11,000 UK children who were born between 2000 and 2002. Using the UK Millenium Cohort Study, which tracked children’s development over several years, the researchers were unable to find any correlation between time spent playing video games and parental reports of behavioral problems, though watching television for more than three hours daily was found to have a small negative effect on certain areas of conduct.

Jimmy De Santa in 'Grand Theft Auto 5'

Based on the introduction to the study, the researchers seemed to be working from a fairly neutral standpoint on the issue. The paper mentions the various health problems that have been linked to screen time in the past, including obesity, depression, social isolation and reduced prosocial behavior, and also outlines the argument that, “games may have more powerful effects due to active user engagement, identification with characters and repeated rehearsal and reinforcement.” However, the paper goes on to criticize the existing body of work on the subject for being inconsistent, methodologically flawed and focused on North America only, and suggests a number of other factors that may have influenced the results.

The survey was based on the mother’s reports of their children’s screen time and of behaviors such as hyperactivity and inattention, negative moods and emotions, problems interacting with peers, conduct problems and prosocial behavior. Notably, the researchers also adjusted for family and child characteristics that were found to affect the results, in order to get a more accurate picture of the effects that video games and TV specifically were having.

Journey screenshot

Those effects, it seems, are pretty negligible. Although watching lots of TV or DVDs was found to have a small effect on behavioral problems, no association was found between playing video games and the children’s conduct. Moreover, after adjusting for family circumstances the researchers were of the opinion that improving the general quality of a child’s home life is what will ultimately help their behavior and mental health:

“Our findings do not demonstrate that interventions to reduce screen exposure will improve psychosocial adjustment. Indeed, they suggest that interventions in respect of family and child characteristics, rather than a narrow focus on screen exposure, are more likely to improve outcomes.”

There are limitations to the usefulness of any correlational study, but it’s fairly safe to assume that if video games were having a negative effect on children’s behavior then some kind of pattern would be evident in a sample size as large as this. It’s also always worth noting that although video game violence has grown increasingly realistic and prolific over the past few decades, the number of arrests for violent crimes among young people have been steadily decreasing in the USA, and in global statistics there is no correlation between the rate of video game consumption and the rate of violent crime.

As promising as the study is, it’s unlikely to sway the opinions of those who are convinced that playing video games has a damaging effect. Since it’s unfortunately impossible to prove a negative, we can only hope that the increasing volume of studies that have failed to find any connection between playing video games and violent or anti-social behavior will eventually become too great to dismiss.

Source: Archives of Diseases in Childhood (via Games and Learning)