Over his decades studying how media affects children and adults — including the effects of violent video games, television and movies — Iowa State University psychology professor Douglas Gentile has fielded plenty of parent questions.
“If it has to do with media and kids, I probably studied it in my career — whether we’re talking about school performance, or obesity, or video game addiction or video games causing creativity,” Gentile said.
The queries he’s received have been just as broad — and frequent — which is why Gentile and his Iowa State colleagues, including ISU psychology professor Craig Anderson, decided to write a book formatted as a Q&A. The new book, “Game On! Sensible Answers about Video Games and Media Violence,” was released in December to address parents’ most common questions.
“There are 57 questions parents ask us, and then it has a short answer and the long answer form,” Gentile said. “The short answer is in very plain language. In one paragraph, it answers the question. And then, if you want to understand the science underneath that short answer, then there’s a long answer that has all the scientific references.”
Q: What is the most common question you get from parents?
A: “The first one is usually just the basic — is there something we should be concerned about? … I think a lot of people are honestly confused in that they’ve heard from people who sound like reputable scientists saying, ‘There is no evidence at all.’ ”
Q: So is there evidence that violent media can affect the kids who consume it?
A: Yes, he said. “The evidence stretches back to the ’60s. We’ve been studying this a long time. Two U.S. surgeons general have said the evidence is clear that there’s a causal relationship. They use the ‘C’ word, causal, about the science between media violence and aggression in society.”
Q: Why do you think there’s so much confusion?
A: “Parents haven’t really heard that message because, No. 1, there are forces who control the media who may not want that clear a message to come out, and two, because humans don’t like hearing bad news.”
Q: Tell me more about the research? How do you study the effects of violent media?
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A: First, he said, you can conduct a simple survey by — for example — asking kids what they watch and how violent it is and then asking peers, parents and teachers about their behavior. Those studies, Gentile said, show clear ties between violent media and aggression, but not necessarily causation.
“Kids who report watching more media violence also tend to behave more aggressively,” he said. “But that doesn’t tell us anything about causality, because it might be that aggressive kids like to watch media violence, which is true, by the way.”
By doing a longitudinal study, Gentile said, researchers can follow the same kids to see whether kids who consumed more media violence in the past are more aggressive in the future. They are.
“But not the opposite,” he said. “What we usually find is that if they were more aggressive in the past, they don’t tend to prefer to watch violent media in the future. So that tells us a little bit about causality because we know one thing did come before the other.”
Lastly, scientists can bring kids into a lab, let them play video games and see how they behave.
“Hundreds of each of these types of studies have been done,” Gentile said. “And the evidence is pretty clear that all three of these types of studies tend to point toward the more kids consume media violence, the more willing they become to behave aggressively when provoked.”
Q: Is one form of media more dangerous than another?
A: “There are a lot of theoretical reasons why playing violent video games should have a bigger effect than TV and movies, but I don’t see it,” Gentile said. “It’s so small, it’s within the margin of error.”
Music and books, however, are different.
“When we get to other media, like music, that’s a much lower effect. Violent music is a much weaker effect. Violent books, much weaker effect. There’s something powerful about the visual image.”
Q: How big a role can media violence play in inciting aggression?
A: “A 2001 U.S. surgeon general’s report on youth violence ranked about 100 different scientifically known risk factors for aggression, and violence is not the biggest. It’s not the smallest. It’s right in there about the same size as coming from a broken home.”
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Q: And what about screen time in general — non-violent screen time? What are the implications of too much screen time for today’s kids?
A: “I’ve done several studies on this myself, and what we find is with greater screen time tends to come poor school performance, more attention deficit problems, greater risk for what’s being called video game addiction or gaming disorder, greater risk for obesity.”
Q: So what do you recommend, in terms of amount of screen time a day?
A: “If kids were watching no TV, none at all, they had good reading scores,” he said. “If they were watching 10 hours of TV a week, the reading scores were actually a little better.”
Once kids reached 10 hours a week, though, scores started dropping. And, he said, the average right now is 31 hours of TV and videos, 10 hours online and 13 hours of video games.
“So that’s 54 hours of screen time,” he said.
Q: With so much science out there, why did you feel the need to write this book?
A: “We know a lot of the answers to the questions parents have, but the problem is we’re scientists. And scientists talk like scientists,” he said. “So that makes it hard for parents to actually get the information they need, because it exists out there, but mostly in scientific journals for statistics.
“We wanted to do this in a way that was in plain language that anyone could understand.”
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