Are Violent Video Games Training Kids to Think and Act Aggressively?

How Violent Video Games Can "Teach" Aggressiveness

boys play handheld video game
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If you're a parent with children at home, chances are you're familiar with the question of "to allow or not to allow": the huge dilemma parents face when deciding if they should let their kids play violent video games.

There's been a lot of debate over the issue of how exposure to violent video games and other violent media content, such as in movies and TV shows, affects children.

Many studies indicate that violence in media may be a risk factor for development of aggressiveness in some kids, reduced caring about others, increased confrontational and disruptive behavior, and other antisocial behaviors.

Most researchers say it's unlikely that playing violent video games will cause a child with no other risk factors for violence to turn into someone who's extremely violent and harms others. Nevertheless, one of the best arguments for limiting all kids' exposure to violent media content, regardless of their personal background, comes from a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Effects of Violent Video Games: What the Study Showed

The study was led by Douglas Gentile, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University and a renowned expert on the effects of media on children and adults. It showed that kids who repeatedly play violent video games learn to think in aggressive ways that can eventually influence their behavior.

For the study, researchers tracked more than 3,000 children in 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th grades for 3 years.

Researchers found that, over time, playing violent video games caused kids to think more aggressively and behave more aggressively.

"Kids are changing the way they think" after long-term exposure to violent video games, says Dr. Gentile. He explains that this can lead to changes in both thinking and behavior: "They spend a lot of time looking for enemies and reacting quickly to aggression." 

For example, a child who regularly engages in violent fantasy in the video game world may be more likely to think, say, or do something aggressive or unkind if he is bumped accidentally by someone in the hallway at school.

"The body treats it like a real fight," Dr. Gentile points out.

How "Practicing" Aggression With Video Games Teaches Real-Life Aggressiveness 

Whether it's a musical instrument, a dance routine, or Taekwondo moves, kids practice activities over and over so they can perform them better and better. They develop muscle memory for the activities and become more skilled at them both physically and cognitively.

Similarly, says Dr. Gentile, repeated exposure to violent or inappropriate content can provide a setting for "practicing" violent behavior until a child learns how to do it well.

"What we're talking about is learning," says Dr. Gentile. "That's true for aggressive or non-aggressive media."

What About Exposure to Non-Violent Content? In previous research, Dr. Gentile found that video games, TV shows, movies, and other content that portray characters as being helpful, kind, and cooperative had a positive influence on kids' behavior. (Remember all those positive lessons we learned as kids watching Sesame Street?)

In other words, caring and sharing, like aggression and violence, can be practiced and learned, too.

"What can I, as a parent, do?"

More than 90% of kids are thought to play video games, so you can't expect to turn back the tide. What you can do is get more involved in what your child is seeing and doing. You goal: to minimize exposure to violent content and tilt your child's activities toward positive influences as much as you can.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bushman BJ, Coyne SM, Anderson CA, et al. Risk factors for youth violence: Youth violence commission, International Society For Research On Aggression (ISRA). Aggress Behav. 2018;44(4):331-336. doi:10.1002/ab.21766

  2. Gentile DA, Li D, Khoo A, Prot S, Anderson CA. Mediators and Moderators of Long-term Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior: Practice, Thinking, and Action. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):450‐457. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.63

  3. Gentile D, Walsh DA. A normative study of family media habits. J Appl Dev Psychol. 2002;23(2):157-178. doi:10.1016/S0193-3973(02)00102-8

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.