True or false: Violent video games cause children to become more aggressive. Sorry, that was a trick question. Despite much bandying of statistics and loud talking by critics on both sides of the argument, the real answer is that there is no real answer – at least not one that's been proved scientifically.
So say Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner in their new book, "Grand Theft Childhood." "In fact, much of the information in the popular press about the effects of violent video games is wrong," write the husband and wife team, who direct the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
That will, of course, be of tremendous comfort to concerned parents who find calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin simplicity itself compared with figuring out which video games, if any, to allow in their homes.
But the fact is, the research can't be boiled down to a simple headline, however much politicians, experts, and the media might wish otherwise, say Drs. Kutner and Olson, who conducted a $1.5 million study funded by the US Department of Justice that looked at the effects of violent video games on 1,200 middle-school-age children.
That conclusion, say other experts, is what makes Kutner's and Olson's study so valuable.
"Looking at violent behavior is not a simplistic thing. There is no one thing that is going to cause a child to become violent," says Kathryn Seifert of Salisbury, Md., who's a forensic psychologist and an expert in assessing and treating children who are at risk of becoming violent. "It's a great, great study. I think what they did is wonderful."
Dr. Seifert's main caveat is that she would like to see an additional study incorporating children who have been suspended from school or who are in detention centers or on the streets – kids who are more likely to become violent than children who are still in school.
Kutner and Olson became interested in the subject after watching their son, now 18, play video games. "For most kids and most parents," they write, "the bottom-line results of our research can be summed up in a single word: relax."
That's not to say that middle-schoolers aren't sneaking over to friends' house to play the new "Grand Theft Auto." Nor are Kutner and Olson apologists for the video-game industry. While they cite a 2001 FBI study that showed no link between violent video games and school shootings, their own research did show links between 12- to 14-year-olds who almost exclusively played rated-M (for mature) games and a much more common schoolyard problem: bullying. (This was among both boys and girls who played more than 15 hours a week, which Kutner and Olson note, is not the norm.)
Middle-schoolers in this category also were more likely to get into fights, destroy property, and argue with their teachers. However, Kutner and Olson are careful to point out that their study does not prove causality: It may be that more aggressive children are drawn to more violent games, and not that the games themselves are to blame. Researchers just don't know yet.
But for parents who are contemplating throwing out their son's Wii, wait a minute: The research showed that boys who don't play video games at all were the most likely to engage in bullying and other antisocial behaviors. That may be because video games are such an important part of socializing for that age, Kutner and Olson say, that these boys are, by definition, "abnormal." Here again, Kutner says, there's no proof of causality. "[We're not saying] 'Oh just have a video game, and he'll be fine.' No, it doesn't work that way."
So, what can parents do, besides throw up their hands and grab the joystick? Actually, Kutner and Olson say that playing the games with your child is an excellent idea, for many reasons. For one, 12-year-olds love being able to trounce their parents at something.
For another, parent and child will be able to have meaningful conversation while playing – whether about video games or not. (Children at that age find it much easier to talk to a parent if they aren't facing them.) And if a parent finds something that concerns him in the game, a child may listen more thoughtfully than if the parent just issues a blanket refusal to allow future playing, Olson says.
However, parents should be aware that not all video games are equal, and that ratings do not tell the whole story. Manhunt and Postal "are two games that no child should ever go near," says Olson. And she views DefJam Vendetta, a T[een]-rated game, with a dim eye, because of its portrayal of women.
Finally, Kutner says, "We advise parents not to have [game] consoles in a child's bedroom. You should be able to see what they're doing; it should be in a public place. Plus, they'll be able to sleep at night." Nor should children have televisions in their room, they add.
In their book, Kutner and Olson compare video games to other juvenile media – such as comic books – that caused parents of earlier generations sleepless nights. Although, they note, because video games are nonlinear, parents can't easily flip through to make sure a particular game is appropriate for their child. "It could take 15 hours of play" to vet a game, and you still might not find the one scene that might make your hair stand on end, Kutner says.
Other experts say that parents should feel free to go slow. "Why do you want something to be tested on your kid? There's good reason for parents to be a little skeptical," says Maria Krcmar, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She says the scientific community is about a decade away from conclusive understanding about the effects of video games on children.
"It might turn out that video games are completely fine," Dr. Krcmar adds, although she doesn't see that happening. If parents don't let their child play them, "what have they really missed out on?"
But for those parents who simply won't let their children have video games at home, Olson says, "total denial doesn't work." There's a good chance the child will just find somewhere else to play them. "It's like saying, 'We don't allow books in our house.' The medium is not good or bad, it's how you make use of those games."