Thursday, September 18, 2008

No link can be found between crime and video gaming — again

I know this may come as a disappointment to some people, but when it comes to violent crime, you have less to worry about than a decade ago.

Why would good news like that disappoint anyone? Well, as it happens, there are people who have made their careers by trying to scare the rest of us. There is an entire industry of child psychologists, “public health experts” and lawyers whose livelihoods depend on Americans being scared to death that we are raising a generation of dangerous criminals reared on violent movies and video games.

The numbers, however, tell a different story.

According to FBI statistics released Monday, violent crime was down in 2007. That follows two straight years when violent crime increased slightly, but it also continues the overall trend since 1993, when the violent crime rate plunged for 10 years before leveling out and remaining mostly stable ever since.

You certainly wouldn’t get the idea that violent crime is falling or stable from watching a typical episode of “Nancy Grace” on Headline News. You might, however, think that “Grand Theft Auto” is turning the nation’s children into vicious gangsters with no regard for human life.

Yet while violent crime stubbornly refuses to skyrocket, more American children are playing video games than ever before.

A new study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 97 percent of American children play video games. Now, I don’t want to seem judgmental, but if your child is in that remaining 3 percent, he is probably going to be shunned by his peers. You might want to invest in a Wii.

Not all video games are created equal, of course. While there are some child psychologists — I suspect they are shilling for the theme park lobby — who insist that all video games can turn children into snarling sociopaths, most of the focus is on violent games.

Well, fully half of the boys in the Pew survey listed games rated either M (mature) or AO (adults only) among their favorites. That means efforts to keep M and AO games away from children have failed miserably. It also means it doesn’t matter. Mature and adults-only video games aren’t creating delinquents any more than comic books did during the comics scare of the 1950s.

As a rather antisocial person, I don’t regard “civic engagement” as a particularly great thing. Still, for those of you who do, I have good news: The Pew study shatters the conventional wisdom that video games make children into antisocial hermits.

The study found that the young people who spent the most time playing video games were no less likely to be involved in their communities than the young people who spent relatively little time gaming. That surprised even me because you would expect some sort of trade-off. But whatever it is gamers are giving up to have time for their video games, it doesn’t appear to be community involvement.

As an aside, do you think that when books were invented, people worried about books making children antisocial? There’s no more solitary activity than reading.

Ultimately, despite claims to the contrary, no study has found hard evidence that watching or participating in violent entertainment leads children to be more violent. The studies claiming to find such a link don’t account for the fact that naturally violent children might be drawn toward violent games.

There are, however, studies that have found children are more aggressive right after playing violent video games or watching violent movies, but that effect is only temporary. It’s nothing that would lead to an increase in violent crime, which is why there isn’t an increase in violent crime. And it’s no different than the increased aggressiveness most people experience right after watching an exciting sporting event. Anything that gets you excited is going to make you temporarily more aggressive, whether it’s “Halo 3” or the Auburn/Alabama football game.

Personally, I tend to become temporarily more aggressive after watching the evening news.

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