Violent Video Games: Not The Problem

See Kevin interviewed by Teen TV News:  Videogame Addiction interview

We live in a world where information, especially of a highly negative and disturbing variety, inundates and overwhelms us every day.  Most of us struggle to integrate the information, let alone have time to understand and fully process it.  I remember during the Sandy Hook tragedy listening to satellite radio for four or five days straight, every time I was in the car.  I even lingered in the car when I would reach a destination, drawn to passively participate in the aftermath of the unfathomable loss of life.  I am now under another media barrage with the present naval-yard horror, and find myself  now driven to keep up.

What strikes me in this case is a partial focus once again on violent video games.  So, I shall again respond, providing my professional opinion as an expert in the field, and also updating readers on what science has to say.  Obviously, Aaron Alexis seems to suffer from some severe mental health issues.  Stories of erratic behavior, psychological disturbances, and details of his discharge from the navy have started to emerge.  And yes, he did play violent video games, like the emblematic, Call of Duty.  So now, the news media have started contacting me again, asking me to comment on this issue.

  • Do violent video games create a violence-prone individual?
  • Do they encourage violence?
  • Do they push a person down the path toward violent behavior?

These are the types of questions I am being asked.  I constantly scan scientific websites, the Internet, and keep in touch with academics to stay current on this issue.  To educate yourself, I recommend going to sciencedaily.com and doing a simple scan.  The website is a clearing house that offers short summaries of scientific studies. I just went there and searched for, violent video games brain, and came across the following article: Video Games Alter Brain Function in Young Men.  An author in the field of video game addictions, my curiosity was understandably piqued.  Yang Wang, a medical doctor and professor at the Indiana University Medical School, issued a powerful statement about the findings made in this study:  “For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home.”  I was ready to believe and start altering my recommendations accordingly.  This sort of scientific statement—that appeals to measures of neurological and neurochemical activity—always makes a powerful impression on me.  However, experience has taught me that when evaluating a scientific claim, it helps to know who exactly has funded the research.

In this case, the research was funded by The Center for Successful Parenting whose mission is “to help parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video game violence.”  Does it sound to you like they have already made up their minds?  This group has sponsored other studies whose findings have ultimately been found questionable.  Furthermore, my experience of groups like this is that they cherry pick information that suits their mission and ignore that which “does not compute.”  I certainly think that violent video games impact the brain, just as lots of other activities do. We have reputable and repeated scientific data that suggest, for example, that watching violence leads to desensitization. We also have pretty sound evidence that problem video gamers have atypical activation patterns in the brain’s craving centers, as well as areas that regulate emotions, and impulses.  But the most recent study I came across, August 2013, found a complete lack of “evidence that violent video games increase bullying or delinquent behavior among vulnerable youth with clinically elevated mental health symptoms.”  The jury is still out, folks.  So before you go removing your child’s Xbox, take a few breaths and realize that 99.99999999999999999% of people who enjoy military games on the Xbox are not going to hurt other people.

Many parent groups see red when they ponder the continuing trend toward violent video games.   Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence (MAVAV), for example, sees the problem in epic proportions. The organization’s website declares: “The video game industry continues to market and promote hatred, racism, sexism, and the most disturbing trend: clans and guilds, an underground video game phenomenon which closely resembles gangs.”   First of all, most people I know who are part of gaming clans hardly leave their house and suffer from severe social anxiety, not good traits for a future member of a gang.  It is understandable for parents to worry when they see their children taking delight in mutilating and killing on-screen characters, as well as destroying cyber neighborhoods. In my personal experience working with hundreds of cyber addicts, however, I find that when kids have addictive tendencies toward video games—and the offerings of the cyber world in general—it is usually a signal that some other issues are going on. To be clear, excessive cyber behaviors are often a symptom rather than a cause.

I think the video game industry is motivated by profit, and generally cares little about corporate responsibility. However, research suggests the impact of violent video games to be somewhat small. I have had many young people in my cyber addiction support groups who had bona fide anger management issues. In some cases, violent video games provided a helpful outlet for built-up anger, while in others, seemed to exacerbate it. In all cases, however, the anger existed before the violent video games. The games did not make these children angry.

Trevor, a fourteen-year-old in one of my support groups, had been severely bullied in middle school. He had withdrawn from social contact into first-person, squad-level shooting games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare. He did not just want to kill opponents. He wanted to humiliate them. After he killed a player in one of his online multiplayer games, he then moved his soldier over the top of the “dead” player and tea-bagged him. Obviously, this behavior related to Trevor’s unresolved emotions. His problems were a bit too serious for the group to deal with, so I referred him to a therapist. Dealing with his video game addiction was, nevertheless, the gateway toward getting to his deeper problems.

I have had many folks in my cyber addiction recovery groups go on to have a variety of issues diagnosed, from ADHD and anxiety issues to bipolar disorder. Excessive and obsessive use of video games, computers and the Internet almost always point to other problems which underlie them.  Think of these behaviors as simply the tip of the iceberg.  Let’s not look for an easy and well-packaged solution to this present tragedy.  We need to become more adept as a society in identifying people early on who need our help, compassion, and intensive mental health intervention.  Too many people fall through the cracks. We all want to do SOMETHING, so that we do not feel so helpless in the face of such an unforeseeable tragedy. But banning or burning your child’s Xbox is not going to really help.

The Seduction of the Screen

This blog is an interview with Kendra Wagner, who has devoted herself to helping ADD people succeed, especially in becoming better readers. This blog offers great insights into why ADDers have a penchant for the “screen,” and offers some great solutions on how to confront that.

How can we help ADD-ers become engaged with non-screen activities?
That is a long answer, and much of it ties in to the list of common-sense treatments for ADD that the experts have drawn up for us. We need to take care of our whole selves, we always hear. Screen time takes care of well, our need for retreat, and helps eye-hand coordination. Research shows little more than that for the positives. As ADD-ers we know we need train our brain to crave down time, to insert physical activity into our day, to take medication, supplements, or both. The “pull” of TV, movies, video games, online activities, and cell phones is especially strong for ADD-ers, because it is the novelty and newness factor is ever-present. You can switch channels in TV, fast forward in movies, switch levels in video games, and switch entire websites on the internet. Oh yes, and text several people at a time on phones. So for those of us who dread tedium or slower pacing, screens are very enticing.

What is a screen addiction?

A screen addiction is characterized by insatiability and also an inability to gauge your time spent online, or in front of a particular game or program. Screen addiction means that use of the screens are mood-altering and the addict is dependent on it—that they have an anxiety or identity crisis (no matter how small)when they try to stop using screens for a day or two.

How does screen addiction impact learning?
We take in a lot every moment through the eyes, more than more than a few decades ago, which is only part of how we learn. Kids in school in their average day take in a lot visually and auditorally but to really learn something we need more. Screens cannot take us there. Also, the rate in which kids in school process what is coming in needs to vary in pacing or rate.  Varied rates of processing are necessary because we are all individuals. Some kids need fast/slow/average pace, and some need all of that, with repeated exposure, depending on their own brain make-up, or the online pokies subject being learned.

Neurologically, how are we wired to learn?
The three ways we learn are:
Visual: through the eyes
Auditory: via the ears
Kinesthetic: through the skin, this includes touch, internal sensations, and hands-on experience.
As a culture we are not encouraging kinesthetic learning as much as we could be. A child who is watching the world of today sees people interacting with screens and concludes that is how to communicate, learn and to entertain oneself.

How do screens hijack the learning process?
Often screens with video games, TV shows, or movies, and many educational websites or software, have very fast moving images. The speed of the images does not mirror the pace that our human brains are wired to move or process. In the same way that pornography doesn’t mirror the natural pace of a relationship, video games do not mirror the natural pace of engaging with the world or learning something deeply. So then the child or adult addicted to screens grows to expect that pace to be how off screen life responds to them.

Children and teenagers can become frustrated with the steps and time required to develop mastery. They will ask “can’t I just go to another game?” when playing an educational game that requires mastering a subset of skills before moving on. In a video game you can always start over and often you are able to go to a level you are comfortable. There are even “cheat codes” that can be used to “fake” mastery.

Can you talk about frustration tolerance and screen addiction?
For adults, frustration tolerance is required for creating a personal change. For children, it’s required when learning a new social or academic skill. Frustration tolerance is a willingness to have small, micro failures or frustrations while keeping an end goal in mind. Kids and adults without long term gratification skills (AKA Frustration Tolerance) expect things to be instantaneous. They also lack “gray area” thinking and will assign rigid categories to themselves and others such as smart/dumb and then not want to keep going with effort once they have put themselves in these boxes.  I’ve noticed that my clients who have screen addictions don’t take real interpersonal risks.  Right, because in real life there is no “reset” button.

So what do you suggest?
We are in a world of screens so we don’t want to pretend they don’t exist. I suggest that parents have a good mix: provide an equivalent amount of face to face time that matches the screen time your children have. A four hour play date equals four hours of screen time, on the weekend. And I always suggest no video games during the school week. That honors the fact that school and homework are the child’s “job” and the weekend is their time off, so to speak. Also it is harder to get addicted when you have five days without it.

Research shows that kids learn best when screen exposure is short. An enormous part of learning, in both reading and in doing, from sports to medical school, involves making pictures in your head. Apraxia, an uncommon learning disability, and related disorders of language comprehension, is becoming more common because the part of the brain that creates images is “getting less exercise” in screen culture.

Visual processing (seeing and making sense of images) is different than generating (creating one’s own image based on imagination) processing. We know this from brain imaging research. So with screen over-use, that part of the brain is not going to the gym.

If we want to become an expert in anything or to feel we have a special skill, then we need to give our attention and a slower pace to that learning process. Screens are a tool in being a learner. They cannot substitute for mentors, concentrated time, or kinesthetic learning.

Kendra Wagner is a learning specialist in private practice in North Seattle, who primarily teaches children reading, writing, and thinking skills. She also consults in schools and advocates for children. Her specialty in ADD and Dyslexia grew out of her work in schools as a reading specialist and consultant, when she saw so many students being mislabeled, mistreated, and mis-instructed. She has a particular interest in how the brain develops, learns, and adapts to family and school environments.