Teenagers who play risk-glorifying video games rated for mature audiences are more likely to act aggressively, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and have unprotected sex, a new study suggests.
Practicing being a deviant character
Character-based video games let people practice being someone else, and practicing at being a character who's an anti-social deviant may have broad behavioural consequences for kids, the researchers conclude.
"Your moral compass is warped as a consequence of practicing being a deviant character in these games," lead author Jay Hull told Reuters Health. "If your kids are playing these games, it's not a good sign of things to come."
Read: Violent video games numb players to brutality
The study is the first to suggest that game players may develop values consistent with their deviant game characters and are more likely to act in a host of dangerous ways, not just in the specific ways enacted in the games, said Hull, who is a social psychologist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Selected American teens
Researchers interviewed 5 019 randomly selected American teens on the telephone and attempted to continue to interview them twice more over four years. The average age of participants was 13 and a half at the start and almost 18 years old at the end, when the pool of subjects, who were paid $5 for each interview, had dwindled to 2 718.
The study examined the behaviour of kids who played mature-rated video games and zeroed in on three – Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and Spiderman. They all contain violent and risk-glorifying content but vary in the extremity of violence and the depiction of gore, the authors write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Read: Frustrated people drawn to violent video games
The ratings say no one under 17 should have access to mature-rated games. But nearly half of the participants said their parents allowed them to play the games.
The study found the games were associated with changes in a wide range of high-risk behaviours.
Being less than a good person
Alcohol use and cigarette smoking increased "exponentially" over time with the amount of game play. The study found similar patterns for delinquency, risky sex and increased tolerance of deviant behaviour.
The effects were similar for males and females and were strongest among the heaviest game players and those playing games with anti-social protagonists, the authors said.
The authors emphasise that youngsters' troublesome actions in real life were not necessarily the same high-risk behaviours of the characters they were pretending to be when they played.
Read: Yelling at teenagers causes behavioural problems
During video-game play, "They're not practicing drinking and smoking and risky sex, but what they are practicing is being a less than good person," Hull said. "Practicing being like a less than moral person in these games increases the likelihood that they're going to be less than moral."
Grand Theft Auto players, for example, play underworld thugs. The game includes a scenario in which a player might go to a prostitute, have sex, then kill the prostitute to take back the money he paid her, child psychologist Douglas Gentile told Reuters Health.
A gateway to deviance?
Gentile runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University and was not involved in the current study. He likens violent video games as a gateway to deviance the way some see marijuana as a so-called gateway drug.
"Once a kid is trying one substance, the odds of trying another one go up," he said. "The risk starts piling up much faster, and the outcomes for these children get much worse in a hurry."
He underscored the need for parents to pay attention to video game ratings.
"The ratings are there for a reason. Certain kinds of content really aren't for kids," Gentile said.
But the rating system is flawed, he said. He has staged sting operations and given children as young as seven money to buy mature-rated video games, and one time out of two, they have been able to make the purchase, he said.
Early violence exposure
Exposing children to mature-rated video games is like exposing them to sex long before they're ready for it, Gentile said.
"Violence is also a complicated adult issue. Kids aren't emotionally or cognitively prepared to think about the ramifications," he said.
Social psychologist Christopher Engelhardt studies video games at the University of Missouri Thompson Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Columbia. He told Reuters Health the current study shows that video games "can be excellent teachers".
"They can reinforce risky type behaviours and make other risky behaviours not demonstrated in the video game more likely in the future," he said. "The effects do tend to be small. But small effects can be important because of the number of people who play video games."
Gentile said his studies show that 90 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls play video games in the U.S.
"Video games are among the most frequent behaviours that people do, other than sleeping," Engelhardt said.
Video game teaches kids how to recognise a stroke
Video game industry takes on hate speech
Virtual world may impact real-world behaviour
Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com