Exclusive Interview: Advice to parents on media violence

Written by PTC | Published October 17, 2014

Interview with Brad BushmanBrad Bushman is a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University. Dr. Bushman is well-known for his many studies of the effects of violent video games and other violent media on increased aggression in children. Recently, Dr. Bushman and others published a study in the Journal of Psychology of Popular Media Culture documenting the scientific consensus that media can and does make users more aggressive. Dr. Bushman graciously agreed to an interview with the PTC so we could learn more. ************************************** PTC: How did you happen to come to study the effects of video games and other media?

Brad Bushman: Well, like most people I played video games myself when I was young, so that was a small part of it. But really, I think it was an undergraduate honors course I took on human aggression. Thanks to that class I became interested in studying aggression. Anything that will make people aggressive interests me, and violent media is one of the things that does. But I’ve also studied the influence of alcohol on aggression, and increasing temperatures on aggression, and frustration and aggression, and venting anger, and narcissism, and many other aspects of the issue. I’m an aggression researcher. So I do lots of other things as well, but yes, studying the effects of video games and media is now a big part of what I do, and what I’ve become best known for.

PTC: What was the first project you did that got you into studying video games specifically?

Brad Bushman: I began my Ph.D. work around 1985, and I started doing research on violent TV programs and films, and their influence on aggression, and –that work just naturally led me into video games as well.

PTC: How does your research actually work? Do you sit down with a child, or 100 children, and ask them questions?

Brad Bushman: No, not me personally. Some scientists do, by asking children or other participants to report what their favorite video games are. That would be what we call a “survey study.” I’m an experimental social psychologist, which means that I do experiments in a controlled setting.

The way that works is that we randomly assign participants (children or teens or, often, college students) to play a violent or non-violent video game. Then after they’ve played it, we measure their aggressive behavior.

PTC: How do you find these participants? Do you put an ad in the paper, and the college students or children’s parents volunteer?

Brad Bushman: Sometimes. Mostly for younger children, we work through schools. Of course, we explain the proposed experiment and the parents have to give their consent, if the children are under 18.

PTC: And then you assign the participants to play a certain game?

Brad Bushman: Well…If all the aggressive people choose to play violent games, you won’t know if the game is affecting them. For example: suppose you allowed people to choose their own games, and an aggressive person chose to play Grand Theft Auto. What would you learn about the impact of the game? Does the game have something to do with their being aggressive, or did they pick the game because they’re aggressive already and they like it for that reason? It tells you nothing about the effect of the game on players. Whereas if you assign the games randomly, you can study the effect that the different kinds of games have on people. If all different kinds of people show more aggressive tendencies after playing Grand Theft Auto, well, now you’ve learned something.

PTC: Could you discuss some of the findings of your latest study?

Brad Bushman: My colleagues and I conducted a comprehensive review of video game studies conducted by scientists around the world. We did what’s called a “meta-analysis,” which is a quantitative literature review of all these studies. We found 381 effects from studies involving over 130,000 participants. These studies showed that playing violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, increase angry feelings, increase physiological arousal, decrease feelings of empathy for others, and decrease helping behavior.

PTC: How do you determine that playing the games makes people more aggressive?

Brad Bushman: There are various ways we use to measure aggression-related outcomes. For example, one method of measuring aggressive thoughts is providing the incomplete root stem of a word, and asking the subject to complete it. We provide some of the letters, and participants fill in blanks with other letters. Say we give the participant this: “K I _ _.” We tell people to fill in the missing letters to make a word. They could choose to make the word “KISS,” or “KIND,” or “KITE.” But people who play violent video games are more likely to make the word “KILL.”

To measure aggression, we have participants do mean things to other participants (who didn’t play the games). For example, those who played can give others small electric shocks, or loud blasts of noise through headphones, or give somebody who hates spicy hot food hot sauce to eat, or cause somebody to put their hand in ice-cold water and decide how long they have to keep it there. That’s how we measure aggression.

If the study involves young children, maybe the researchers have them play a violent or non-violent video game, then watch them on the playground and see if they hit or kick other kids, or pull their hair, or push them down, or things like that.

Science has consistently shown that aggressive participants experience a decrease in feelings of empathy and compassion toward others. They decrease helping behavior, cooperation, and pro-social behavior. We’ve also found that playing violent games increases angry feelings and physiological arousal, such as heart rate and blood pressure. And we found that these effects occur for males and females of all ages, regardless of where they lived in the world.

PTC: Have you found that the effects of violent video games are more pronounced in children and teens than in adults?

Brad Bushman: No, we haven’t -- but a lot of that may be because of the ethical guidelines under which experimental scientists operate. In our studies, we can’t subject children and teens to age-inappropriate, adult material, even though many children are exposed to it in real life. For example, if we’re studying children younger than 13, we can’t let them play video games rated for teens 13 and older, even though at home they may, and many probably do, play M-rated games intended for players over 17. It is not ethical for us to let them play age-inappropriate games.

We’re constrained in the same way in other areas. When I do research on the effects of alcohol, I can’t get my participants drink too much alcohol, even though they might in the real world. We can’t make people drink so much alcohol that they go over the legal limit. We can’t break the law and go over the legal limit when we’re engaging in scientific experimentation on people, whether we’re testing with alcohol, or video games, or movies, or whatever. If a television program is rated TV-14, and the participant is under 14, we can’t show it to them, even though they might be watching it at home. If it’s an R-rated movie, and the participant is under 17, we can’t show them the movie.

So if anything, the results we’ve found, about the influence of media on aggression, almost certainly UNDER-estimate the true effects, because many kids are being exposed to more intense, adult content than we’re allowed to show them.

Now, what I’ve said applies to experimental studies, where we actually assign participnats to be exposed to violent or nonviolent media, and then study their reactions. But in survey studies, you can just ask the kids what movies they watch and what video games they play, and then ask them or their peers or their teachers about their aggressive behavior. For example, a kid might say, “My three favorite games are Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Halo. Then we find out how many fights they have gotten into during the past year.

PTC: How would you respond to others in your field who claim that media doesn’t have an influence on people, and that any concerns you may express are just the results of a “moral panic”?

Brad Bushman: I think that reaction isn’t only unscientific, it’s almost deliberately anti-scientific. We don’t have to rely on opinions or gut feelings or hunches or intuition. We have data. I just told you about studies involving over 130,000 participants. These findings indicate that violent video games do have significant effects on players.

That’s why we did this most recent study. We wanted to know: what is the consensus? And we found there is a consensus – one with pretty high numbers. Among psychologists and communication scientists, about two-thirds, or 67%, from the Media Psychology division of the American Psychological Association and the Mass Communication division of the International Communications Association agreed or strongly agreed that violent screen media increase aggression in children. The other third is about evenly divided between those who disagree and those who neither agree nor disagree.

Among pediatricians, who deal with and treat children’s health issues, 90% believe that violent screen media – TV shows, movies, Internet sites, and video games – increase aggression in kids. Ninety percent! And by the way, that 90% figure does not mean that 10% disagree. Five percent or more said they neither agreed nor disagreed. So it’s actually only about 5% of pediatricians who think that violent media do not increase aggression in children. Look, there’s never going to be 100% agreement in any field. You can always find someone who disagrees. There’s probably some doctor out there who thinks that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. And sure, they have the right think whatever they want, and maybe they can even convince some reporter to publicize their opinion. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re vastly in the minority, and are deliberately ignoring the proven results of many studies and the consensus reached by of the vast majority of other doctors and scientists. Under those circumstances, who would you listen to?

PTC: For parents who are concerned about effects of media consumption on their children, what’s the key takeaway of your research? What would you like parents to know?

Brad Bushman: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for kids 2-17, and no screen time at all for kids under 2 years old. But the average child has, I think, about 7 ½ hours of screen time per day. So it would help to follow the recommendations of pediatricians.

Certainly, children and teenagers shouldn’t be exposed to age-inappropriate media. What my family does -- our youngest just turned 15 (we also have an 18 and 19 year old), but these rules have applied since our children were born. We block violent media content using password protection on our TV and on our computer. We have our computers in public locations, like the kitchen. There are no screen devices in our children’s bedrooms. Our kids have iPads, but they have to keep their bedroom door open when they’re using them; and when they go to bed at night, they have to give us their iPad, because we don’t want them to stay up all night playing games or looking at the Internet.

PTC: Any final thoughts?

Brad Bushman: It would be really nice if parents listened to pediatricians. They’ve given some great advice. Parents listen to pediatricians on other matters, like on diet, and exercise, and whether to vaccinate their kids. It would be nice if they listened to pediatricians about media, too.

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