COMMENTARY

Kids, Guns, and Violent Video Games: A Randomized Trial

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE

Disclosures

June 05, 2019

Welcome to Impact Factor, your weekly shot of commentary on a new medical study. I'm Perry Wilson.

This week: a study[1] testing whether violent video games can increase the chance that kids will play with guns. The study appeared in JAMA Network Open.

Here's the background: A fair amount of research suggests that kids who play violent video games or watch violent shows are more likely to engage in aggressive or violent behavior. But causality isn't entirely clear here. Maybe certain kids just like that stuff; behavioralists call it "trait aggression." Some kids gravitate to Call of Duty while others are more into Candy Crush.

To determine causality, researchers randomized 242 children aged 8-12 years to one of three scenarios in the popular game Minecraft.

In the first, the children played a character who would shoot monsters with guns. In the second, they would kill the monsters with swords. In the third, there were no weapons or monsters; they would just run around collecting gems.

After about 20 minutes of this, the kids were sent into a room to play with toys—Legos, board games, Nerf guns, and foam swords. And in the room was a cabinet containing two real guns that had been disabled.

The question: What would the kids do if they found the guns, and how would the type of video game they had just played influence those actions?

Well, first of all, almost every pair of kids found the guns. A mysterious cabinet in a lab does not stay closed for long. And, to shoot first and ask questions later, there was an effect that suggested that exposure to the more violent version of Minecraft led to more inappropriate behaviors with the gun.

Kids who played the gun version of Minecraft pulled the trigger more often, pulled the trigger more while pointing at themselves or their friend, and spent more time handling the gun.


 

But honestly, that's not what really disturbed me about the study. The disturbing thing was how these kids behaved after finding the gun.


 

Of 220 kids who found the gun, only 13 told an adult without touching it—the thing you want your kids to do in this situation. Thirty-five told an adult, but after touching it. Most kids never told an adult at all. Yikes.

But how influential was the violent version of the video game, really?


 

Digging into their regression results, you can see that although the violent video game condition had some effect, it was washed out by trait aggression, the natural aggressive tendency of the child. Children who played Minecraft with guns pulled the trigger about twice as often, but kids who were more aggressive at baseline pulled the trigger 13 times as often. This suggests that the arrow of causality goes from natural aggression to consumption of violent media, as opposed to the other way around.

Methodologically, I have only one major concern about the study. These are 8- to 12-year-olds. Do we think they might have caught on to what was happening? The authors state explicitly that at least some kids thought it unlikely that a real gun would be left in a scientific lab.

So the high rate of gun play may reflect the fact that the kids felt relatively safe. Of course, a similar situation can occur in a home where kids assume that a found gun is unloaded—and those miscalculations can be deadly.

The most important thing this study teaches us is that children are curious creatures who need to be reminded of what to do the moment they come across a gun in real life: Don't touch, and tell an adult.

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