Is Playing Violent Video Games Related to Teens' Mental Health?

New research indicates that video games are not as bad as we once feared.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Key Points:

  • Two recent studies provide insight into whether playing violent video games is related to mental health or aggression.
  • Teens who had consistently played violent games for years also reported higher aggression compared to those with gaming patterns that changed over time.
  • Researchers found no links between violent video game play and anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms, or ADHD after two years.

With so many kids still home this year, and an apparent increase in the number of teens and adults playing video games, it seems appropriate to re-examine the evidence on whether aggression in video games is associated with problems for adolescents or society. A special issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking published in January did just that. As a parent of three—aware of how video games can suck kids in—and a psychologist working at a social innovation lab that has been a leader in the games for health movement, I’m eager to look at studies that examine teens’ violent video game play and any effects later on in life. I asked, in the ongoing conversation about whether playing games like Fortnite makes teens more aggressive, depressed, or anxious, what do we now know?

After a few decades of research in this area, the answer is not definitive. There was a slew of studies in the early 2000s showing a link between violent video game play and aggressive behavior, and a subsequent onslaught of studies showing that the aggression was very slight and likely due to competition rather than the violent nature of the games themselves. For example, studies showed that people got just as aggressive when they lost at games like Mario Kart as when they lost a much more violent game such as Fortnite. It was likely the frustration of losing rather than the violence that caused people to act aggressively.

Pexels, used with permission
Two new studies add to Violent video games may not be quite as dangerous as they have been made out to be.
Source: Pexels, used with permission

Looking at Mental Health and Gaming Over Time

Two studies in the January special issue add to the evidence showing that violent video games may not be as dangerous as they have been made out to be. These studies are unique because they looked at large samples of youth over long periods of time. This line of research helps us to consider whether extensive play in a real-world environment (i.e., living rooms, not labs) is associated with mental health functioning later on in the teen and young adult years. 

The first study revisited the long-standing debate over whether violent video game play is associated with aggression and mental health symptoms in young adulthood. The study reported on 322 American teens, ages 10 to 13 at the outset, who were interviewed every year for 10 years. The study looked at patterns of violent video game play, and found three such patterns over time: high initial violence (those who played violent games when they were young and then reduced their play over time); moderates (those whose exposure to violent games was moderate but consistent throughout adolescence); and low-increasers (those who started with low exposure to violent games, and then increased slightly over time). Most kids were low-increasers, and kids who started out with high depression scores were more likely to be in the high initial violence group. Only the kids in the moderates group were more likely to show aggressive behavior than the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that it was sustained violent game play over many years that was predictive of aggressive behavior, not the intensity of the violence alone or the degree of exposure for shorter periods. Importantly, none of the three exposure groups predicted either depression or anxiety, nor did any predict differences in prosocial behavior such as helping others. 

The second study was even larger, following 3,000 adolescents from Singapore, and looking at whether playing violent video games was associated with mental health problems two years later. Results showed that neither violent video game play, nor video game time overall, predicted anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder after two years. Consistent with many previous studies, mental health symptoms at the beginning of the study were predictive of symptoms two years later. In short, no connection was found between video games and the mental health functioning of youth. 

Taken together, these studies suggest that predispositions to mental health problems like depression and anxiety are more important to pay attention to than video game exposure, violent or not. There is also an implication that any potential effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior would tend to show up when use is prolonged—though the research did not show that gaming itself necessarily causes the aggressive behavior.

 Pexels, used with permission
Games are not likely to make our kids more anxious, depressed, aggressive, or violent.
Source: Pexels, used with permission

So, Should Parents Be Concerned?

These findings are helpful during a year when many kids have no doubt had unprecedented exposure to video games, some of them violent. The most current evidence is telling us that these games are not likely to make our kids more anxious, depressed, aggressive, or violent.

Do parents still need to watch our children’s screen time? Yes, as too much video game play takes kids away from other valuable activities for their social, emotional, and creative development, such as using their imagination and making things that have not been given to them by programmers (stories, art, structures, fantasy play). Do parents need to be freaking out that our kids trying to find the "imposter" in a game will make them more likely to hit their friends when they are back together in person? Probably not. 

We still need to pay attention to mental health symptoms; teens appear to be feeling the effects of the pandemic more than adults, and levels of depression and anxiety have reached unprecedented heights. 

Pexels, used with permission
If teens are using video games to cope right now, it's not the end of the world.
Source: Pexels, used with permission

So let’s say the quiet part out loud: if they’re using video games to cope right now, it’s not the end of the world, and if they’re struggling psychologically, we should not be blaming the games. Normal elements of daily life have been reduced for teenagers during what should be their most expansive years, for what has become an increasingly large percentage of their lives. It is untenable, and even still, teens are showing us what they always do—that they are adaptive and resilient, and natural harm reduction experts. 

As parents, let’s stay plugged in to what they’re going through, and think more about how games can be supportive of well-being. It’s needed now more than ever.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

References

Coyne, S. M., & Stockdale, L. (2020). Growing Up with Grand Theft Auto: A 10-Year Study of Longitudinal Growth of Violent Video Game Play in Adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 24(1), 11–16. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0049

Ferguson, C. J., & Wang, C. K. J. (2020). Aggressive Video Games Are Not a Risk Factor for Mental Health Problems in Youth: A Longitudinal Study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 24(1), 70–73. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0027

Kato, P. M., Cole, S. W., Bradlyn, A. S., & Pollock, B. H. (2008). A Video Game Improves Behavioral Outcomes in Adolescents and Young Adults With Cancer: A Randomized Trial. Pediatrics, 122(2), e305–e317. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2007-3134

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (n.d.). Violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behaviour: Evidence from a registered report. Royal Society Open Science, 6(2), 171474. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171474