So this week a group of schools in Nantwich have written to parents threatening to report them to social services if they allow their children to play inappropriate games such as Grand Theft Auto. This is unlikely to be widely copied, but is emblematic of the level of concern that schools and other professionals feel about children’s media consumption.
So what’s the problem? As most readers will know, GTA and other games, in particular Call of Duty, are 18 certificate, highly violent experiences. There is also some, far more modest, sexual content, and it is odd that the Nantwich schools choose to focus on the games’ potential to make children vulnerable to sexual exploitation, for which there is, literally, no evidence.
But what about the violence? There is some evidence that aggressive video games make a person, in the immediate aftermath, more likely to respond aggressively, , and young children might be traumatised by exposure to violent imagery, but no evidence as yet of a more general effect on patterns of behaviour. So are these games safe for children?
We don’t know, and that is kind of the problem. You would never get ethical approval to study 8 year olds playing 18 certificate games, so we can’t say for sure what the effect of the uncontrolled experiments going on in, literally, millions of bedrooms nationwide might be.
Even if an association between playing violent games and behaviour problems were found, it’s hard to show that this is causal. Playing video games into the evening is a very good way to reduce the amount of sleep a child has, with well established behavioral effects. There is also the question of what they are not doing (interacting, exercising, building relationships) which I personally think is the main concern about excessive screen time in general.
And if you can reduce the playing of violent games, there is the question of what they would do instead. For the most popular games systems, there really are very few titles that are not graphically violent, sports based or toy-based. Ok, Minecraft, but that’s about it.
Of course they don’t have to play video games, but demonising games will increase TV watching, and the evidence of a negative effect on mental health from TV is far stronger than for video games.
Of course one could always restrict screen time of any type, and families should always aim for control of this aspect, but to do so requires resources, in the widest sense: outside space, accessible friends, play/activity equipment, parents willing and able to structure and interact. For many families this is a tall order. I frequently advise limiting screen time in clinic, to be greeted with despairing looks- if the child dislikes reading, has grown out of toys, and lives in an isolated, over-stretched family without access to open space, then what do I expect them to do?
And finally, even if one accepts that it is harmful to play these games (and it probably is for pre-teens), and that there are other, beneficial activities available to the family, that still doesn’t make the Nantwich schools’ letter the right approach. The obvious effect will be to drive video gaming ‘underground’ and increase its cachet. Plus, by focusing on the sexual content they are entirely missing what point they might have.
So what should we do? Well, I would make the enforcement regime for retailers selling titles likely to be played by minors much tougher. Of course people will bypass it, but by forcing people to do so you have a number of effects:
1) Confront parents with the fact that they are giving their children inappropriate, possibly harmful media
2) Increase the impetus behind research into the effects of violent games on children
3) Encourage the games industry to develop more 12-rated games (or, more specifically, grow up)