Kids, Video Games, and Guns: A Randomized Trial

A new study shows that most kids are not at all safe when it comes to guns.

This week, a study 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 – there’s a fair amount of research that 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 that “trait aggression”. Some kids gravitate to Call of Duty, while some kids are more… well… 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, and in the third no weapons, no 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, some nerf guns and foam swords. And a cabinet. In the cabinet were two real guns which had been disabled. The question – what would the kids do if they found the gun and how would the type of video game they just played influence those actions?

Do one, see one, teach one?

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.

Do the right thing, kids.

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. 35 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?

Aggressive kids are WAY more likely to pull the trigger. Is that what we need to really worry about?

Digging into their regression results, you can see that while the violent video game condition had some effect, it was washed out by “trait aggression” – the natural aggressive tendency of the child. Children shown 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 only have one major concern with the study. These are 8 - 12 year olds – do we think they may 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.

artificial environment.JPG

 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. 

Of course, the most important thing this study teaches us is that children are curious creatures who need to be reminded what to do the moment they come across a gun in real life – don’t touch. Tell an adult.

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