Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Video Games and Risky Behavior

A long-term study looked at video game play and risky behavior in teens.

One topic I have taken up in this blog from time-to-time is the impact of video games on behavior.  There are both positive and negative consequences associated with video game play.  On the positive side, video games can promote fast visual processing, and games with pro-social messages can prime people to be more helpful.  On the downside, frequent video game play can hurt kids’ performance in school.

One area where it has been hard to draw firm conclusions is in the area of aggression and risky behavior.  Some studies suggest that playing violent video games can prime aggressive behavior, but the evidence is mixed.  One problem with a lot of studies is that they tend to be short-term.  In laboratory studies, participants might play a game for a period of time and then be given the chance to be aggressive.  Even when those studies demonstrate an increase in aggression, it is not clear how that translates into behavior outside of the lab.

A study by Jay Hulll, Timothy Brunelle, Anna Prescott, and James Sargent in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology did a long-term survey of teens to explore the relationship between video game play and risky behavior.

They surveyed over 5000 teens four times in a four-year period.  The teens were asked about how often they played violent video games, and they were also asked about how often they played specific games.  In addition, they were asked questions about sensation seeking and rebelliousness.  Finally, they were asked questions about a variety of behaviors including alcohol use, cigarette smoking, aggression, and sex. 

The sample included both boys and girls.  About a third of the group did not play video games.  About half played violent games at least some of the time. 

The results of the study were fairly striking.  For all of the behaviors surveyed, playing violent video games was associated with an increase in these behaviors over time.  At the first wave of the survey, the kids were about 14, and so the rates of drinking, smoking, aggression, and sex were relatively low.  Over time, the kids who played violent video games more often also increased their tendency for all of these behaviors.  And the amount of video game play at earlier times predicted the degree of increase in these behaviors at later times.

In addition, violent video game play predicted increases in sensation seeking behavior and rebelliousness.  These changes helped to predict the changes in smoking, drinking, aggression, and sex. 

The survey included a number of control variables such as parental income, parental education, gender, race, and some measures of parenting style.  So, all of these effects of video games hold, even taking into account these other factors.

The authors were interested in the prospect that games that promote taking on the role of someone who engages in deviant behavior helps kids to identify with that kind of character.  To test this possibility, they compared kids who played three different specific games.  Two of those games (Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt) involve a character whose violent behavior is not morally driven.  One game (Spiderman) was also violent, but the behavior had a moral basis. 

The relationship between violent video game play and smoking, drinking, aggression, and sex was higher for those people who played games involving an amoral character than for those who played games involving a moral character. 

Finally, while the amount of reported game play, drinking, aggression, and sex was lower for the girls in the study than for the boys, the relationship between video game play and these behaviors was the same for both boys and girls. 

What does all of this mean?

A lot of research on video games and behavior has focused on the prospect that playing games with violent content primes people to think about violence and to be more comfortable with acting aggressively.  The results of this study suggest something a bit different.

Playing games as a character who engages in risky behavior that is socially inappropriate gives teens a chance to practice acting in a way that is different from the social norm.  The more that they practice this behavior in the video game world, the more that this behavior can come to seem acceptable in the real world as well.  As a result, video games that glorify risk can reduce the pressure of social norms to avoid alcohol, smoking, sex, and aggression. 

That said, there are probably some other factors at play in these findings as well.  In particular, the more that kids are playing video games, the less time that they are spending in social interactions.  In addition, the more that kids are playing these games, the less direct parental supervision they are likely to be getting.  Both of these factors may also play a role in the behaviors observed for the teens in this study.

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Photo: Zakariyaah

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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