Violent Video Games Linked to Risky Behavior With Real Guns

Children who play video games with gun or sword violence are more likely to handle a real (disabled) handgun, handle it longer, and pull the trigger more times, compared with children who play nonviolent video games, a randomized controlled trial shows.

“Our study highlights another danger of violent media exposure: it increases dangerous behavior around firearms. Specifically, exposure to violent video games can increase a child’s interest in firearms, including shooting a handgun at themselves or others. In addition, habitual exposure to violent media was a risk factor for dangerous behavior around real guns,” the researchers write.

Justin H. Chang, MA, and Brad J. Bushman, PhD, from Ohio State University, Columbus, published their findings online May 31 in JAMA Network Open.

Chang and Bushman conducted a three-group randomized trial in a university laboratory that included 250 children ages 8 to 12 years who were tested in pairs. (Eight were later excluded, bringing the total to 242.) The children were told the study was about what types of activities children like to do in their spare time. In pairs, the children played or watched one of three versions of the Minecraft video game: (1) a violent game with guns, (2) a violent game with swords, or (3) a nonviolent game. The pairs of participants were moved to a different room with toys and games and were told they could play there for 20 minutes.

The door of the room where the children played was closed while they were inside. Two disabled 9-mm handguns with counters for trigger pulls were inside a cabinet in the room; parents or guardians and one researcher monitored the children in another room via a stationary hidden camera that recorded play sessions.

The analysis included 220 children (90.9%) who found a firearm during testing (the other 22 children who did not find a handgun were excluded from further analyses). Primary outcomes were touching a handgun, the number of seconds spent holding a handgun, total number of trigger pulls, and trigger pulls while pointing the gun at oneself or the child’s partner. The researchers adjusted for sex, age, trait aggressiveness, exposure to violent media, attitudes toward guns, presence of firearms in the child’s home, interest in firearms, and whether or not the child had completed a firearm safety course.

“Although the study…was laboratory based and limited to short-term effects, its randomized design and careful measurement of important study constructs make its primary findings clear: playing a video game with firearms increased the likelihood that a child would subsequently handle and pull the trigger of a firearm,” Cheryl A. King, PhD, and Cynthia Ewell Foster, PhD, colleagues from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, write in an invited commentary.

“Perhaps an equally important finding was that many of the children handled and pulled the trigger of a firearm they found in a playroom. This — on its own — is a strong argument for the safe storage of firearms,” the editorialists continue.

The children’s mean age was 9.9 (standard deviation, 1.4) years. Most (74.1%) were white and 129 (58.6%) were boys. Slightly more than one third (36.8%) of the children’s parents reported having at least one firearm in the home and 24.1% of the children had completed a firearm safety course. There were no main or interaction effects seen between the active players compared with the passive observers.

More than half (54.5%; n = 120) of the 220 children who found a handgun touched it. Only 6% (13 children) told an adult and did not touch a handgun; 15.9% (35 children) told an adult and also touched a gun, 40% (87 children) neither touched a handgun nor told an adult, and 38.6% (85 children) touched a handgun but did not tell an adult.

Among the children who touched a handgun, the mean (SD) time spent holding the gun was 96.5 (147.7) seconds, and 39 children (32.5%) pulled the trigger at least once.

Forty-seven (61.8%) of the 76 children who played the video game with gun violence touched a handgun, compared with 42 (56.8%) of the 74 children who played a video game with sword violence, and 31 (44.3%) of the 70 children who played the nonviolent video game.

Those who played a violent video game were more likely to shoot the handgun at themselves or their partners compared with children who played the nonviolent video game.

The researchers found a positive association between self-reported exposure to violent media and total trigger pulls (incidence rate ratio [IRR], 1.40; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.00 – 1.98) and trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 1.88; 95% CI, 1.29 – 2.72). There was also a positive association between trait aggression and total trigger pulls (IRR, 13.52; 95% CI, 3.14 – 58.29), trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 25.69; 95% CI, 5.92 – 111.39), and time spent holding a handgun (IRR, 4.22; 95% CI, 1.62 – 11.02).

“A child or adolescent who actively engages with a video game with firearm violence may have a lower threshold for using a firearm against another person when experiencing strong negative emotions and a precipitating event. This may occur through 1 or more of the mechanisms that have been proposed to account for the relationship of exposure to violence with aggressive behavior (eg, desensitization, activation of a schema or script for aggression),” King and Foster explain.

Education was a protective factor, as those who had taken a firearm safety course pulled the trigger fewer times (IRR, 0.15; 95%CI, 0.03 – 0.80) and spent less time holding a handgun (IRR, 0.10; 95% CI, 0.03 – 0.35).

There was also a negative association between age and trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 0.68; 95% CI, 0.52 – 0.88) and time spent holding a handgun (IRR, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.58 – 0.95).

There was a positive association between predicted interest in guns and total trigger pulls (IRR, 2.83; 95% CI, 1.79 – 4.47), trigger pulls at oneself or one’s partner (IRR, 2.75; 95% CI, 1.87 – 4.03), and time spent holding a handgun (IRR, 1.65; 95% CI, 1.22 – 2.23).

The authors found a negative association between total trigger pulls (IRR, 0.27; 95% CI, 0.10 – 0.74) and time spent holding a handgun (IRR, 0.40; 95% CI, 0.20 – 0.82).

Children whose parents reported having one or more guns in the home were less likely to pull the trigger at themselves or their partners (IRR, 0.05; 95%CI, 0.01 – 0.38).

“We cannot extrapolate from these study results to suggest that playing shooter video games for a short time has a long-term effect on violent behavior or firearm-related pediatric injuries; however, the children’s greater tendency to handle firearms, even in the short term, is cause for concern,” King and Foster write.

“Firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the United States, and suicides and homicides account for 35% and 59% of these deaths, respectively,” they add, citing a 2018 New England Journal of Medicine special report titled, “The Major Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States.”

Researchers Chang and Bushman say the results reinforce the need for vigilance when storing firearms. “[P]arents and guardians should be cognizant of the risk associated with exposure to violent media. Most importantly, gun owners should secure their firearms,” they conclude.

The study authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. The Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium, an initiative based at the University of Michigan, is funded by the National Institutes of Health. The commentators have disclosed no other relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Network Open. Published online May 31, 2019. Full text, Editorial

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