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February 28, 2008 

"Killer" Video Games Do Not Produce Killer Kids Politicians
and media play blame game, avoiding the root causes
of youth violence, according to summary article in Contexts magazine


Blaming violent video games for violent kids is nothing new. In 1999, the culprit was the first-person shooter game Doom, and the tragedy was the Columbine High School shooting rampage.

But holding video games responsible for violent youth ignores the fact that as video game play has skyrocketed, youth violence has plummeted, University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer says in an article in the winter issue of the American Sociological Association’s Contexts magazine.

Annual sales of video games and accessories now top $10 billion. Yet in the 10 years following Doom’s release—not to mention many other brutal-sounding titles—juvenile homicide arrest rates fell 77 percent. Students have less than a 7 in 10 million chance of being killed at school, Sternheimer found.

“If we want to understand why young people become homicidal, we need to look beyond the games they play,” Sternheimer says.

Placing the blame on video games exonerates the environment that a child lives in that might nurture violence: poverty, instability, family violence, unemployment, and mental illness, Sternheimer argues.

“It is equally likely that more aggressive people seek out violent entertainment,” Sternheimer says. “After adult rampage shootings in the workplace, which happen more often than school shootings, reporters seldom mention if the shooters played video games.”

In the end, blaming video games also removes the culpability of the criminals, and this is an especially tempting approach when white, middle-class boys who live in the safe suburbs of America are the culprits, Sternheimer says.

When boys from “good” neighborhoods are violent, they are often naively characterized in the media and by politicians to be “harbingers of a ‘new breed’ of youth, created by video games rather than by their social circumstances,” Sternheimer writes. “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply ‘dangerous.’”

In her article, Sternheimer analyzed newspaper coverage and FBI statistics detailing trends on youth crime. She has been studying these issues extensively for the past several years while compiling information for her books, "Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions about Today’s Youth" (Rowan & Littlefield 2006) and "It’s Not the Media: The Truth about Pop Culture’s Influence on Children" (Westview 2003).

A highly touted 2001 analysis of previous studies in the journal Psychological Science found that video games did increase aggressive behavior. But it is rarely noted that the analysis used college students and measured aggression in terms of reading “aggressive” words on a computer screen or blasting opponents with sound.

“They don’t offer much insight as to why a few isolated kids, and not the millions of others who play these games, decided to pick up real weapons and shoot real people,” Sternheimer says.

Two other more recent studies in leading journals could not support a finding of increased aggression among players of violent video games. Sternheimer found their results were rarely cited in news accounts.

A copy of the article can be found here.

Contact Sujata Sinha, (202) 247-9871, ssinha@asanet.org or Eddie North-Hager, 213.740.9335, edwardnh@usc.edu

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Further information on Contexts can be found at www.contextsmagazine.org.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.