The negative effect violent video games and shows have on kids, and what parents can do to help
An 11-year-old boy sits in his room and plays the popular and rather playful game, Fortnite. He’s moving his player around with his gaming controller, scoping out the next player to kill. After successfully killing 99 other players in his virtual reality game, he is the last man standing. The next time he plays, he decides to ask friends from school who are also playing from their own homes on their own gaming consoles, if they want to team up to kill all the other players.
This same 11 year old boy on a completely unrelated note, sits on the couch with his parents as they watch a late night news special. The particular episode outlines a murder mystery that took place years ago. The parents think nothing of it, because the show is tastefully done. They don’t even think to dismiss their son from the room or change the show.
The next day, the 11-year-old boy searches up more shows like the one he just watched with his parents because he thinks they’re OK to watch. And over several days, he watches and plays, watches and plays.
Then, he starts to act strangely. He begins to be sad, anxious and even angry. His parents notice a behavior change and approach him with questions — then he breaks down. “I’m scared someone might hurt me, or I might hurt someone,” he says. “I have thoughts of hurting others, and I don’t know why. I don’t want to, but I get these thoughts that I can’t control. I’m scared.”
After several conversations, the boy and his parents get to the bottom of the issue, and measures are taken to get rid of the game and shows. The parents are hopeful that things are better. Yet, after a few days, their son continues to have fears, and even struggles sleeping at night, going to school or being in a room alone.
This scenario we just outlined is not an uncommon one. According to recent reports, 91 percent of kids play video games, with 90 percent of video games portraying some sort of violence. Other reports found that children are watching violent broadcast TV shows that show guns or bladed weapons every three minutes, stating that, “The most violent shows on broadcast TV have essentially similar levels of violence as the most violent cable TV shows, rendering untrue the popular assumption that broadcast TV is a ‘safer’ media environment for children.
But it isn’t just playing violent video games and watching it on TV that’s the problem. Reports continue to show that they have lasting effects on children as they grow older. One study in fact, tracked more than 3,000 kids for three years, finding that playing violent video games increased their impulsiveness. Those same kids were used in a second study that found an increases in aggression. Furthermore, studies including this one by Susan Tortolero, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the University of Texas, found a link between violent video game play and depression. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD), has named “gaming disorder” to its list of mental health conditions.
So, how do you know your child has a problem?
It’s easy to assume that your child doesn’t have a problem — that he or she is mature enough to handle it. The truth of the matter is, kids and even many adults are not able to handle such a steady stream of violence. This is simply because the mind has a difficult time deciphering between non-reality and reality. Running away from an active shooter on a video game or watching a violent show activates your brain’s fight-or-flight response, causing you to be in a constant state of stress.
This alone explains why your child is scared, unable to sleep, and therefore unable to make rational decisions or complete a rational thought.
There are some things to look out for, including: if your child loses control over his gaming/viewing habits; if he begins to prioritize gaming/watching over many other life interests or daily activities’; if they continue playing/watching despite clear negative consequences; if they are reclusive, angry or scared.
What can you do?
It can be scary as a parent to see your child in a downward spiral. You may even think or fear the worst. But, before you do, here are some steps to take.
1. Set limits and guidelines
Many of these games, including Fortnite, have fun and even good problem-solving aspects. Your child may have even developed friendships with kids from school through the game. Rather than having your child quit playing the game, set limits. One study found that children who played video games for a limited amount of time each week may provide benefits, but too much can be detrimental. Find a limit that works for you and your child and stick to it.
When it comes to TV, set clear guidelines on what they watch.
2. Keep an open dialogue with your child.
One conversation is not enough. After the initial talk, make sure you follow up on how things are going with the rules, as well as how your child is feeling. This will help your child be more open to you, as well as more aware of how he or she is feeling.
3. Seek professional help
There are times when the situation escalates to a point where you feel like you can’t handle it on your own. Maybe your child is becoming more reclusive, anxious and violent. This could be an indicator that there are other things that your child isn’t telling you, or that you are not equipped with the right tools to deal with it.
In cases like these, it might be time to seek the help of a licensed child therapist. In fact, the ICD stated that gaming disorder can be diagnosed if it impairs personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning for a period of at least 12 months. Having a trusted professional offer an outside perspective and new set of eyes and ears to the situation may just be the key to getting your child back on track.