More than 90 percent of American children play video games. This activity may provide some benefits, such as improving problem-solving skills and coordination. As school shootings and other forms of school violence persist, however, some parents worry about the impact of violent video games on the developing minds of children. In 2020, the American Psychological Association stated that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior. However, the APA believes that there is a small yet reliable association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes, such as yelling and pushing. The APA has urged adjustments to the video game rating system to more clearly indicate the degree and type of violence in a particular game.
Parents selecting video games for their children should review the ratings provided by the Electronic Software Ratings Board. This can help a parent control the exposure of their children to violent (or otherwise mature) content.
The First Amendment and Violent Video Games
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that the government cannot abridge the freedom of speech. Courts have applied a level of review known as strict scrutiny to laws that regulate the content of speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Strict scrutiny requires the government to show that a law serves a compelling interest and uses the least restrictive means to further that interest. The government rarely succeeds in this task.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a challenge to a California law regulating the sale or rental of violent video games to children. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that video games qualify for full First Amendment protection, similar to books, plays, and films. Scalia distinguished speech about violence from obscenity, which may be regulated under the First Amendment. He also pointed out that there is no long-standing tradition of restricting children’s access to depictions of violence. Therefore, strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard of review, and the Court found that the law failed to meet this test.
What Justice Scalia Said
“Video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”
Unhealthy Gaming Habits
Although most children manage gaming successfully, some children may develop unhealthy habits. They may start sleeping less, exercising less, or eating less healthy foods, and they may start taking time away from homework or family time to play video games on their own. Parents may want to stay alert to signs such as a loss of interest in other activities that a child previously enjoyed, lies about the amount of time spent playing video games, steady increases in gaming time, resistance to parents suggesting that they try other activities, and changes in mood when a child starts or stops gaming. Some children may use gaming as a “medicine” to make them feel better whenever something goes wrong, which is not a healthy behavior.
To avert or reduce these risks, parents may want to limit the amount of time that a child spends playing video games, or consuming visual media in general. They can make clear to their child that they should get their homework or other household tasks done before gaming, and they should stop at a certain hour so that they can get enough sleep. If possible, parents could try to keep gaming in the common areas of the home, rather than allowing a child to play in their bedroom. If a child interacts with strangers online while gaming, parents may want to talk to them about internet safety and privacy. They also should make sure that the child is not using these “internet friends” to replace real-life friends. If a child seems to like video games for their competitive element, parents might suggest that they try a sport. This may help them get more exercise and make friends with similar interests while providing the same competitive spark.
Modeling Gaming Behaviors
Parents who also play video games should realize that their children may imitate their behavior, consciously or subconsciously. Thus, if they want to persuade their children to adopt certain gaming habits, they should adopt those habits for their own gaming.