Some see real toll in video-game violence
Jan 21, 2013 (The Columbus Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last month, parents throughout the nation have watched daily news reports on the debate about guns and violence.
Many of their children use those same television and computer screens to play violent video games that, among other things, turn kids into make-believe assassins.
"Do you think that having a second-grader playing Black Ops for hours a day is OK Well, it's happening all across America," said Rob Dolan, the mayor of Melrose, Mass.
"There are armies of kids playing. What does that do developmentally to a child "
Brad Bushman, an Ohio State University professor who has spent years studying video-game violence, said his research and that of others clearly show ill effects.
But many families don't think about those sometimes-subtle byproducts: aggression, an increased expectation of hostility, desensitization to violence and less empathy. Parents say, usually correctly, "My kid has played these games for years, and he's never hurt anyone."
Bushman said that's not the point. "The test is not whether it turns you into a killer. That's ridiculous," he said. "No scientist is claiming that playing a violent video game will turn your kid into a psychopathic killer."
Ultraviolent games still can affect behavior, he said. Bushman likens them to cigarettes: One won't cause lung cancer, but smoking over a long period of time -- or by someone already sick -- can cause cumulative damage.
In one of his studies, Bushman and two colleagues reviewed the research of dozens of experts who had filed briefs in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving California's unsuccessful attempt to ban selling or renting violent video games to minors.
They concluded that those who found the games harmful had published much more evidence supporting their claims than had experts on the other side of the debate.
"In the absence of scientific data, one opinion is as good as another," Bushman said. "But we don't have to guess about the effects of these video games. It's not a matter of opinion."
Dolan said the deaths of 20 young children in Newtown, Conn., are pushing America to reconsider its casual, even playful, attitude toward violence.
On Feb. 1, he plans to launch his "New Year, New Direction" initiative, which will offer coupons, kid-focused deals at local businesses and perhaps "get-out-of-homework-free" passes for families who toss out -- or at least discuss giving up -- violent video games, movies and toys.
"This is not a witch hunt on the game industry," Dolan said, adding that he's not aiming at adults. "But there is a culture of violence, and there is a lack of supervision and knowledge."
The plan for his small city just north of Boston has attracted national attention and plenty of messages from parents. Some applaud his effort; others think he's out of line.
"I got called a Nazi," he said. "I just want to spur a discussion in my community."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America weighed in on the issue last week, saying they support a White House proposal to allocate $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study what effect video games and media images have on violence.
"We know that media influences young people and their behavior," said conference spokeswoman Helen Osman. "So it is crucial to deepen our understanding of how violent media images and video games influence them and whether there is a link to violent behavior."
Dispatch Facebook friends who responded to a question about violent video games were split on whether parents should limit or ban exposure.
One reader who said he grew up playing games wrote that parents just have to teach kids "right from wrong, fantasy from reality." Another said people should "stop blaming TV, video games, their friends etc. and take some parental responsibility."
On the other side, a parent wrote that she has long limited "all electronics, but especially anything violent." One mom said she feels as if her house is "the last one in America" without a Wii, PlayStation "or whatever stupid brain-cell-killing machine is popular right now."
Bushman said no one can predict the next mass killer. And some risk factors for aggressive behavior, such as low IQ, poverty or being bullied, are difficult to change.
"But as a parent, I definitely can control their media diet, and I should control their media diet," he said. "I think many parents probably use the media as a baby sitter. And that's a bad idea."
Dolan, like Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He envisions "a massive education piece" for his community, with discussions led by doctors, school nurses, representatives from the video-game industry and veterans.
He said he isn't sure where the effort will lead.
"I'm not an expert, but I do know this," Dolan said. "Something is broken in our society."
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