APA warns against linking violent video games to real-world violence

Enlarge / Don’t assume this kid is going to become more violent because of the games he plays, the APA warns.

In a statement this week, the American Psychological Association clarified that, despite popular and political suggestions to the contrary, “there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.”

The APA’s new resolution on this matter is an update to a 2015 APA resolution, which the group said at the time “confirms [the] link between playing violent video games and aggression.” But that increase in generalized aggression cannot and should not be extended to link violent games to violent behavior, despite “many occasions in which members of the media or policymakers have cited that resolution as evidence that violent video games are the cause of violent behavior, including mass shootings,” the APA said this week.

The updated resolution makes this important distinction plain right from the start:

The following resolution should not be misinterpreted or misused by attributing violence, such as mass shootings, to violent video game use. Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policy makers and the public. Attributing violence to violent video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors.

“Not all aggression is violence”

The APA’s new guidance is based on multiple meta-analyses covering over two decades of studies tackling the link between video games and violence from multiple angles. Over a wide range of study methods and samples, the APA Task Force says these analyses show a small but reliable and well-established causal link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior, including “insults, threats, hitting, pushing, hair pulling, biting and other forms of verbal and physical aggression.” These studies also tie game use to decreases in “prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement” in children, though the APA warns that there is “very little research on those under ten years old.”

But while many studies and press accounts tend to use the terms “aggression” and “violence” interchangeably, the APA is clear that the current scientific literature has “not focused on lethal violence as an outcome” of video game use. “All violence, including lethal violence, is aggression, but not all aggression is violence,” the updated APA resolution clarifies.

Thus, focusing on violent video games as a major cause of mass shootings (as many have done in recent years), is a distraction from better-established causes of violence, the APA says. “Violence is a complex social problem that likely stems from many factors that warrant attention from researchers, policymakers and the public,” APA President Sandra L. Shullman said in a statement. “Attributing violence to video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors, such as a history of violence, which we know from the research is a major predictor of future violence.”

“When we look at violence as an outcome, I’d say that the research is pretty clear at this point that violent games and other media are not at all a cause of violent criminal behavior, not even in part,” Stetson University psychology professor Chris Ferguson told Ars in 2018 of his years of research on the topic. “We’ve looked at this in a number of studies, considering youth violence, bullying, dating violence, conduct disorder, and adult arrests, and can’t [find] evidence for effects. Research from other labs has mainly been finding the same thing.”

The APA resolution urges continued study into the effects of violent video games, especially when it comes to “the persistence of negative outcomes over time.” More study is also needed to establish whether gender, ethnicity, social class, and cultural background have an impact on the size of any effects seen from playing violent games. The group also encourages the ESRB to update its generalized ratings to “reflect the levels and characteristics of violence in games.”

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