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Grand Theft Childhood is based on research done at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D. was the study’s Principal Investigator.

Our work was funded by a $1.5 million grant to the Center for Mental Health and Media (a division of the MGH psychiatry department) from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (U.S. Department of Justice).

Who Did We Study?

We surveyed:

  1.  1,254 children aged 12 to 14 at schools in South Carolina and Pennsylvania (the largest survey ever done of this age group).

  2.  500 of those kids’ parents.

We held focus groups (group interviews/discussions) with:

  1.  42 middle-school boys from the greater Boston area, who regularly played violent video games.

  2. 21 parents of those boys.

How Was Our Research Different?

  1. Bottom line: Our research was designed to help parents, health professionals and policymakers understand what’s normal, when to worry about violent video or computer games, and when electronic games might benefit some kids.

  2. Studies by the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service found no link between violent video games and headline-grabbing crimes or violence. We wondered whether video games might affect less dramatic but real concerns such as fighting, bullying or school problems.

  3. We wanted to know what patterns of video game play were normal for young teens, and what patterns were unusual and possibly associated with problems. Amazingly, there was almost no research about these basic facts.

  4. We assumed that not all children would be affected the same way by video games. We wanted to know what kinds of children, playing what types of games, in what situations, with what motivations, and for how much time might be more likely to have problems.  Since it’s not possible to prove cause-and-effect with a one-time survey, our goal was to identify “risk markers” – play patterns associated with a higher risk of problems – that would show us which kids needed extra supervision or help.

  5. We thought that the potential benefits of games had not received enough attention and that this was unfair. We also felt that the views and concerns of parents and of teens were not being heard.

What, When, Why, and How do Young Teens Play Video Games?

Boys vs. girls

  1. Almost half of boys played 6 or more hours per week; 1 in 8 played more than 15 hours a week.

  2. Boys were ten times as likely as girls to play 15+ hours per week.

  3. A third of boys played electronic games almost every day, compared with 10% of girls.

  4. Among girls who played any games in a typical week, almost a third (31%) had played at least one Mature-rated title (for ages 17+) “a lot in the past six months.”

  5. Among boys, over 2/3 regularly played one or more M-rated game titles. (The Grand Theft Auto series was #1 among boys and #2 among girls.)

Kids who played any M-rated game a lot:

  1. Spent more hours and days per week on games.

  2. Were not more likely to play alone; they were actually more likely to play with friends than kids who didn’t play M-rated games.

  3. Were more likely to have a game system or computer in their bedroom. (Nearly half of kids had a game console and almost a third had a computer in their bedroom; about 1 in 5 had both.)

  4. Were more likely to play with an older sibling.

  5. Were more likely to play games to “get my anger out,” or because “I like to compete & win.”

Why kids play?

Boys’ top 5 reasons: It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s something to do when I’m bored, the challenge of figuring the game out, to compete and win.

Girls’ top 5 reasons: It’s fun, something to do when bored, the challenge of figuring the game out, it’s exciting, there’s nothing else to do.

Creativity and learning: Over half of boys and girls played “to create my own world” or “to learn new things.”

Coping with feelings: 2/3 of boys (and almost half of the girls) played because “it helps me relax.” Many also played to forget problems. Close to half of boys and nearly 1/3 of girls played to get their anger out.  Kids who strongly endorsed emotional reasons for play (forgetting problems, anger, loneliness) (almost 1 in 4 gamers) played for more hours/days per week, played alone more and were a bit more likely to play M-rated games.

Friendship: Over 40% of boys played because their friends like to play; over 1/3 of kids liked to teach others how to play.

Who doesn’t play video/computer games?

Just 6% of kids had not played any electronic games in the past six months; 1% had never played electronic games.

Among boys, only 6% said they did not play any video or computer games during a typical week.

Problems Linked to Violent Game Content

M-gamer boys: Boys who played any M-rated game “a lot” were twice as likely to be in a physical fight, to hit or beat up someone, to “damage property for fun,” to steal something from a store, to get poor school grades, or to get into trouble with a teacher or principal (at least once during the past year, compared to boys who played games with lower age ratings).

M-gamer boys were three times more likely to report being “threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun, knife or club.”

The odds of boys’ involvement in all of these behaviors increased with each additional M-rated title on their “played a lot” game list. (However, M-gamer boys were less likely to be victims of bullies.)

M gamer girls: They were four times more likely to be in a physical fight; three times more likely to damage property just for fun, to skip classes or school without an excuse, to be suspended from school, or get poor grades; twice as likely to hit or beat up someone, to get into trouble with a teacher or principal, or to be threatened or injured with a weapon.

[Detailed charts can be found on pages 97 and 98 of Grand Theft Childhood.]

It’s important to note that:

  1. These sorts of problems are very common among young teens and do not mean that they are delinquents or bad kids.

  2. Most young teens who play M-rated games do not have serious problems.

  3. Based on our survey results, the average 12-year-old boy plays at least one M-rated game “a lot”; in other words, by definition, some amount of violent gameplay is normal for young teen boys.

☛ A review of research from many countries (plus our own findings) suggests that kids with the following characteristics may be at higher risk of problems from violent video games:

  1. An aggressive temperament; a violent or neglectful home or neighborhood situation; being developmentally delayed; having inadequate supervision, or fewer options for healthy activities.

Problems Linked to Time Spent on Video Games

Girls who played (any kind of) video games nearly every day: For girls, this was a marker of higher risk for  aggressive behavior. These girls were more likely to report bullying other kids, being in physical fights, or getting in trouble with teachers.

Boys: Only “hitting or beating up someone” was significantly linked to near-daily gameplay (regardless of game content).

However, as the days per week of play went up, both girls and boys were significantly more likely to be bullies. Girls who played games nearly every day were significantly more likely to be bullies than other girls (12% vs. 3%), and more likely to be victims of bullying (17% vs. 6%).

Boys who rarely or never played video or computer games were more likely to get into fights or have problems at school. For some boys, not playing may be a marker of social problems. (This does not mean that not playing video games caused their problems!)

Benefits of Video Games

  1. Games may encourage and provide an outlet for creativity.

  2. Games allow teens to try on roles and behaviors in a safe environment.

  3. Games can provide practice in planning and anticipating consequences.

  4. Games may help teens manage difficult emotions (coping with stress, and anger).

  5. Games may promote involvement in sports/exercise (boys who played realistic sports games spent more hours per week on physical activity).

  6. Games can improve visual/spatial skills (especially valuable for girls).

  7. Games provide a focus for socializing (especially for boys).

  8. Games may provide a source of self-esteem and pride (especially for kids with ADHD and learning disabilities).

For more, see a Q&A with Cheryl Olson from the Sydney Morning Herald

For more on our research, click here.