Massachusetts General Hospital researchers dispel myth about why children play violent video games, which children are at risk, and offer practical advice for parents
BOSTON – With last night's release of Grand Theft Auto IV, millions of parents are deciding whether to give in to children’s pleas to buy the game, and are worried about how to set limits.
A new book by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do (Simon & Schuster), may be just what parents are looking for.
The book’s common-sense advice is based on a two-year, $1.5 million research program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as a review of relevant studies from around the world. Authors Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. and Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D., are a husband-and-wife research team at MGH’s Center for Mental Health and Media, which is part of the psychiatry department. They are also the parents of a teenage boy who plays video games.
Using extensive surveys and focus groups with 7th and 8th grade children and their parents, Olson and Kutner studied how and why children play video games, and looked for patterns of play linked to greater risk of school or behavior problems. A survey of over 1,200 children showed that - although most of children’s top 10 games were rated Teen (for ages 13+) or below - Grand Theft Auto was by far the most popular game series among boys.
In fact, 44% of them reported playing at least one game in the series “a lot in the past six months.” (Similarly, a 2005 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that over 3/4 of boys in grades 7 to 12 had ever played a GTA game.) Surprisingly, Grand Theft Auto was the second most popular series among girls, after The Sims.
“Parents told us they were concerned about violent games, but frustrated by their lack of knowledge and their limited control,” says Kutner.
As one parent lamented in a focus group, “I know that my son does not play Grand Theft Auto in my house. But he seems to know all the characters and what they say, so he must be playing it someplace.” Another noted, “He may bring a Mario game to his buddy’s house and bring back a Grand Theft Auto when I’m not aware of it.”
If you are the parent of a young teen, there’s a good chance that your child will play Grand Theft Auto IV - if not at home, then at a friend’s house. Here are some points to keep in mind, drawn from the book Grand Theft Childhood:
What attracts children to Grand Theft Auto games?
Grand Theft Auto IV is rated Mature (for ages 17 and older), with six content descriptors including “intense violence,” “blood,” and “strong language.”
“Boys’ comments suggest that the open environment, rather than the violence, may be the key to the series’ appeal,” says Olson. “Boys told us they liked the freedom either to carry out missions and win the game, or to explore the wide variety of places, vehicles, weapons and characters.”
One boy in their study explained, “If you happen to get a police car, or a tank, or a fire truck, or ambulance or whatever … you press a button, and all of a sudden, you’re working for them. You can catch criminals, or drive people places, or put out fires. It's more creative than just walking around, than shooting people, and doing a mission when you feel like it.” Another boy added, “And you can be a good guy and a bad guy at the same time!”
Parents may worry that if their child enjoys playing a thug in Grand Theft Auto IV, it might inspire similar behavior in the real world. “In focus groups, boys told us repeatedly that they liked the ‘unreality’ of games such as GTA,” says Kutner. “As one said, ‘You get to see something that, hopefully, will never happen to you. So you want to experience it a little bit without actually being there.’”
What can parents do to monitor game play and minimize problems?
* Get familiar with the content of the game. Parents can find plot details, screenshots, videos and reviews at WhatTheyPlay.com and CommonSenseMedia.org, or at web sites aimed at game players such as Gamespot.com.
* Talk with your child about aspects of the game you like (such as humor), and aspects that offend you or go against your values.
* Keep video game consoles in common areas, such as the living room. Game consoles in bedrooms are associated with more M-rated game play. This also allows parents to monitor game content over time; objectionable behavior or language may not appear until higher levels of the game.
* Ask older children and adult relatives to keep an eye on their games. M-rated game play is more common among children who often play with older siblings.
Because GTA games are so flexible, watching how children choose to play may give insights into their thoughts and feelings. “Our research found that many children play Grand Theft Auto to deal with stress or get out anger; others enjoy competing with friends,” says Olson. If your child seems more angry or stressed after playing a violent game, consider locking the game away until he or she is older.
For more information for parents, see <http://www.grandtheftchildhood.com/>.
About the Massachusetts General Hospital Founded in 1811, the MGH is the third oldest general hospital in the United States and the oldest and largest in New England. The 900-bed medical center offers sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic care in virtually every specialty and subspecialty of medicine and surgery. Each year the MGH admits more than 46,000 inpatients and handles nearly 1.5 million outpatient visits at its main campus and health centers. Its Emergency Department records nearly 80,000 visits annually. The surgical staff performs more than 35,000 operations and the MGH Vincent Obstetrics Service delivers more than 3,500 babies each year. The MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the country, with an annual research budget of more than $500 million. It is the oldest and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, where nearly all MGH staff physicians serve on the faculty. The MGH is consistently ranked among the nation’s top hospitals by US News and World Report