Q&A: Are video games to blame for violence?

Stetson University psychology expert discusses his research

ORLANDO, Fla. – News 6 anchor Kirstin O'Connor recently sat down with Christopher Ferguson, chairman of the psychilogy department at Stetson University, to discuss the research behind violent media and youth.

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Q: Can you explain your research?

A: "We do a number of different kinds of studies at Stetson University. I mean, probably, the ones that get the most attention is we do studies where we kind of track kids over time, where we get surveys from the kids, from their parents and sometimes other individuals and, literally, we follow them for sometimes one year, sometimes three years, sometimes a little longer -- seven to eight years -- and,  basically, we're kind of waiting to see who gets arrested, essentially, or who gets in trouble, or who is bullying, or who is engaging in youth assaults, and we look for different predictors to see what kind of things in early childhood might predict these problems in later childhood, and violent video games is one of the things that we look at. Right now, we're not seeing that violent video games or violent television watching or violent book reading for that matter tends to predict violence later on in life. It's more things like early mental health issues, some family environment types of issues, even genetics, but not so much video games."

Q: What does one of those studies look like? How do you actually measure aggression in a child?

A: "That's a great question. With survey research like these longitudinal studies, we can actually ask either the kids or their parents about their aggression, so there are certain clinical measures that are pretty well validated that parents can fill out about how much, you know, aggressive behavior or antisocial behavior their kids engage in. We can ask the kids when they're a little bit older, when they're teenagers, about their bullying, either experiences with it or experiences doing it. And then, of course, we can just look at arrest records and things like that. None of these are perfect. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but we can kind of look at a combination of these things, or we can look at how they're diagnosed. Sometimes, some of them get diagnosed with conduct disorder by psychologists."
Q: Discussion of virtual violence includes movies and TV shows, so why are video games oftentimes the target?
A: "It's the new technology. I mean, you can really see this pattern going back,literally, 2,500 years. There's examples in Plato's dialogues of people, these ancient Athenians complaining about Greek plays and their effects on delinquency in minors. These are the same plays we now make kids read when they're in middle school and high school. It seems to be some sort of generational thing that whatever the new technology that's coming out the older adults in society tend to have a freakout about it and assume that it is this worst of all evil in society. So we're actually getting to a point where it looks like the sort of moral panic over video games is dying down a little bit, and now it's smartphones and social media. So now, everybody's worried about you know do smartphones cause suicide? And all kinds of mental health problems. And so on and so forth. And then it'll be something else after smartphones."

Q: You have done research into the distinction of gaming as an addiction, can you tell us more about that?

A: "Gaming is kind of like any other fun activity. You're going to get a small number of people -- and the numbers look like about 1 to maybe 3 percent at this point -- of individuals who will overdo that activity. So you can, literally, you can find this for video games certainly, but you can, literally, find it for exercise, work, food, sex (and) there are research papers on dance addiction, of all things. There are cat hoarders in the world, you know. So there's a small percentage of people that can overdo almost anything. So it seems to be a quality of the individual, not a quality of the games, necessarily. And most of these individuals have a pre-existing mental health problem that they're often times using games to kind of try to lift their mood out of."

Q: The American Academy of Pediatrics does inform parents and give parents a guideline that they should watch how much time kids are playing video games, and that there is a link between video games and aggression. Where are they coming up with that number?

A: "That's a great question. Sometimes, I wish I knew. The American Academy of Pediatrics, it's important to understand, is a professional guild. It's not a science organization. So they exist to represent their members. I'm a member of a guild myself. I'm a member of the American Psychological Association, so they all kind of function the same way. We actually have a paper that just came out this week that looked at a lot of these policy statements by the AAP and by the APA and such and found that they tend to be riddled with errors. They tend to be full of distortions and misperceptions of the research field. So at least, I can't speak about their medical advice of course, but on the issue of behavior, I would honestly say the pediatricians don't really know very much about child behavior. And those probably aren't the individuals you want to go to in order to get advice about, you know, your parenting strategies, particularly about media. But certainly the AAP's advice on media is generally been quite unreliable. That's the reality of it."