With an increase in the amount of violence and moral ambiguities within video games, parents and teachers alike are becoming more and more concerned with the link between virtual actions and mental health issues within children. Reports as early as 1994 when the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was founded show complaints about growing aggression as well as video game addiction of youth. Around this time, the video game industry had just picked up from a slump in the 80’s. New games that contained more action and a greater draw for youth began to come out but with a price. Some of these games contained moral choices and cartoon violence that were inappropriate for children. In the following years, continuous concerns were mentioned about the negative impact that video games had on children and to this day those concerns are still being researched. Various studies have shown links between length of game play and aggression, genre and early childhood social development problems as well as content and suicidal predictors. Most of the studies within the past 10 years seem to contrast the popular opinion that video games are ruining youth’s lives in today’s society by corrupting moral compasses and teaching them “how to be bad”.
Kovess-Masfety and colleagues looked into these issues but focused on finding a relation between the amount of time spent playing video games and children’s mental health. To test their questions, they looked towards the teachers and parents of the 4079 children to help. The study consisted of questionnaires for the children to assess their moods, and the teachers to track academic and emotion measures. Parents were also involved (mothers specifically) to track video game play time. The children were not restricted in gaming time so they could live a “normal” life during the study.
What they found in their study was that there were no significant associations with any of the measures that were used to gauge mental health, child-reported or mother reported alike. However, the study showed an association with longer gaming times to a decrease in peer relationship problems and an increase in pro-social behaviour. The study also showed that children in the higher gaming hours group had higher academic achievement. However, this cannot be presented as causal in relationship because there was no improvement, simply a raw score that sat above the other groups.
The authors concluded that video games are not as negative as the public believe them to be. The study suggested that higher video game use was not associated with negative mental health predictors, nor the conditions themselves -- meaning that video games themselves do not contribute to negative mental health. The study actually suggests the opposite effect in that video games prepare children for social interaction and could actually breed community outside of the gaming universe to fulfill the social need therefore aiding in mental health. The authors do note that this study was a simple point in time and not a yearly check-in to see the long-term effects of gaming on children.
So what can we take from this? We can see that in past literature, both sides of the video game debate are right within their own time. Conclusive evidence has not been found indicating if video games are a positive or negative form of entertainment for children. I’m sure games all have their benefits for strategy, learning, and moral values but this idea of growing for the better could also be a myth. The truth is that we just do not know what video games are doing to youth long-term so take every article or news clipping about video games with a grain of pixelated salt.
Kovess-Masfety, V., Keyes, K., Hamilton, A., Hanson, G., Bitfoi, A., Golitz, D., . . . Pez, O. (2016). Is time spent playing video games associated with mental health, cognitive and social skills in young children? Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 51(3), 349-357.