Everything you need to know | COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal


Electronic Games and Child Aggression

With the onset of the iPad and other tablets now accessible to almost every child, we as parents and teachers have to be vigilant as to what controls we put in place regarding access to the world-wide web, gaming sites and the like.

Children who have tablets, and have a few moments to spare, are eager to jump to game apps. This raises a key question for us, “Do certain computer and/or tablet games make children aggressive?” The pros and cons of allowing your child to play such games with violent content is a hot topic of debate in education circles.

An article I came across in the ‘Child Magazine’ calls it a ‘bloody debate’, with both sides firing off emotional accusations, and many confused parents caught in the middle: Do computer games make our children aggressive?

A mother who home-schools her children, remarked recently that her oldest had become grumpy, irritable and rude to his younger siblings. Around the same time the computer games he’d grown addicted to had changed from fairly innocuous fun to “skop-skiet-en-donder extravaganzas”. She banned him from playing for several months as punishment for his behaviour – and swears that within days the change was remarkable. He was kind to his siblings, played patiently with them, and even volunteered to help around the house.

On the other hand, another study cited a family with two boys who spent several hours a week slaying monsters with an array of vicious weapons in World of Warcraft. The elder boy also begun “lanning” – embarking on occasional all-night sniper fests with friends, when they camp out together in a room with their computers, and gleefully destroy each other’s avatars in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. No change was noted in the boys aggression levels who were by nature sensible, sensitive chaps who achieve academically, socialise comfortably, and exercise daily. So what should parents do?

Stealing Childhood?
Pearl Ramotsamai, counsellor at the Family and Marriage Society of South Africa (FAMSA), has concerns about electronic games, but less for their violence than for their potential to rob children of non-electronic play.

“Old-fashioned play is an essential part of childhood,” she says emphatically. Running around outdoors develops muscles and coordination and lowers the risk of childhood obesity and the many health problems this brings later. Being creative with crayons, clay and other simple art materials or musical ones (tins for drums, and so on) boosts children’s imaginations and problem-solving abilities, and teaches basic scientific and mathematical principles. And social play – from taking on the role of characters to board games – teaches vital social skills such as taking turns and sharing.

Computer games can keep children from these, Ramotsamai fears, especially as their time today is often limited by long school hours and extramurals.

Conditioning to Kill?
But it’s the content of electronic games that worries many parents, and fuels the most debate. “They need careful monitoring because they can be explicitly violent and sexual and embody values very different from your own,” says Ramotsamai. “Children copy what they see, and there have been cases of them accidentally killing other children by doing things they saw on TV. What if they find a gun at home, and try to copy what they’ve seen in violent games?”

American psychology professor Dave Grossman believes some are doing this already. In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Back Bay Books), he calls violent electronic games “murder simulators”, and contends they teach children to kill – creating dangerous role models, glorifying violence, and desensitising them to the feelings of others.

Grossman likens violence in electronic games to the army’s conditioning of soldiers. “We are reaching the stage of desensitisation at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment; vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion,” he says. “We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.”

Danger Points
Video games (a term used broadly to include computer and home-console games like PlayStation and Xbox) can be more harmful than violent movies or TV programmes because they are interactive, says Joan van Niekerk, national manager for advocacy and training for Childline South Africa. Children engage directly with them, role-playing their favourite characters and repeatedly practising the violent moves, experiencing the adrenaline rush of fear or excitement, and being rewarded for “skillful play” (often successful kills). “It can be mesmerising and addictive,” she says.

Psychologist Douglas Gentile, author of Media Violence and Children: A Complete Guide for Parents and Professionals (Praeger), reviewed studies and found five “major effects” of playing violent games (defined as “games where the player can intentionally harm other characters”). These were “increased physiological arousal, increased aggressive thoughts, increased aggressive feelings, increased aggressive behaviours, and decreased pro-social helping.” Children who played violent games for extended periods, he said, were more prone to confrontation with teachers, fights with peers, and drops in school performance.

In a more recent American university study, brain-scan technology showed children who played violent video games had an increase in emotional arousal, and corresponding decrease of activity in areas of the brain involved in self-control, inhibition and attention. These effects were detected in the brains of teens who played Medal of Honour: Frontline (a violent first-person shooter), but not of those who played the non-violent racing game, Need for Speed: Underground. The only difference was the violent content.

Positive Spin
Yet there are researchers who say such effects are fleeting, and video games are harmless. Many argue they can even have positive effects on children – increasing their manual dexterity, reaction times, visual-spatial cognition (used in careers such as engineering, architecture and surgery), and computer literacy. They also develop their ability to strategise and make decisions, help them try out social and life situations in a low-risk environment, and build their confidence.

Most of these researchers, however, can only back up their beliefs by saying there is no conclusive data to prove or disprove the effect of such games. Some contend too that exposure to violent games provides a healthy release for the frightening emotions young people can experience, reducing their urge to act out aggression in violent behaviour, though Van Niekerk strongly disagrees. “Parents must be careful not to teach children dangerous means of catharsis,” she says. Writing stories or playing outside is much healthier.

These researchers point out that the link with aggression and violence has never been conclusively proven. In an overview of 130 earlier research reports published this year in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, psychology professor Craig Anderson says video gaming may be just one risk factor for aggression and violence, but “it’s a risk factor that is easy for an individual parent to deal with – at least, easier than changing most other known risk factors, such as poverty or one’s genetic structure.”

So What Should We Do?
Electronic games are now so widely accepted that even if you are concerned, it can be hard to stop children playing them. The advice of most researchers and psychologists is not to ban children from playing them, but to get actively involved – to supervise and monitor them and their game choices, and above all, to ensure they lead balanced, healthy lives, and have good values.

  • “Be a role model and teach non-violent problem-solving skills,” says Van Niekerk.
  • Don’t use electronic games as babysitters, says Yolanda Burgell, founder of the Social Skills Academy of South Africa. “Engage your children every day, asking their opinions about violence and other issues, and sharing yours.”
  • Learn about electronic games – research shows most parents know almost nothing about them. Google those your children want to play, read the boxes, and watch them play from time to time. “Ask yourself if this is something you want your child exposed to on a daily basis,” says Van Niekerk.
  • Play non-violent games with them, like electronic chess. “It can be bonding,” she says. If you allow violent games, Ferguson suggests playing these with them too. “You can discuss that the behaviours are unacceptable in real life, a message made more credible by your familiarity with youth culture. The best influence you can have on your children is through time spent with them.”
  • Be guided by ratings according to the emotional development of your children rather than their actual age. Systems vary, but generally M indicates Mature player (16 plus), and A for Adults (over 18).
  • Don’t put computers or other electronic gaming equipment in children’s bedrooms; use a communal space.
  • Set limits on how often they can play and for how long, says Van Niekerk, and see that they spend time outdoors. “Research shows sunlight deprivation impacts mood and can cause depression, especially in winter.”
  • Above all, she says, monitor your child. “Some can cope with things that others can’t.”

Tony Williams
Principal – Primary School