What impact does playing video games have on children or adolescents?

The most widely used "positive" impact video games are said to have on children is that they may improve a player's manual dexterity and computer literacy. Ever-improving technology also provides players with better graphics that give a more "realistic" virtual playing experience.

This quality makes the video game industry a powerful force in many adolescent lives. However, numerous studies show that video games, especially ones with violent content, adversely affect a teen's aggressive behavior.

Part of the increase in aggressive behavior is linked to the amount of time children are allowed to play video games. In one study by Walsh (2000), a majority of teens admitted that their parents do not impose a time limit on the number of hours they are allowed to play video games. The study also showed that most parents are unaware of the content or the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating (see below) of the video games their children play.

In another study conducted by Gentile, Lynch, Linder & Walsh (2004, p.6) "adolescent girls played video games for an average of 5 hours a week whereas boys averaged 13 hours a week". The authors also stated that teens who play violent video games for extended periods of time show the following behaviors:

  1. Tend to be more aggressive
  2. Are more prone to confrontation with their teachers
  3. May engage in fights with their peers
  4. See a decline in school achievements. (Gentile et al, 2004).

    Another negative impact is that players are rewarded for their violent acts. The interactive quality of video games differs from passively viewing television or movies because it allows players to become active participants in the game's script. Players benefit from engaging in acts of violence and are then able to move to the game's next level.

    Gentile & Anderson (2003) state that playing video games may increase aggressive behavior because violent acts are continually repeated throughout the video game. This method of repetition has long been considered an effective teaching method in reinforcing learning patterns.

    Video games also encourage players to identify with and role play their favorite characters. This is referred to as a "first-person" video game (Anderson & Dill, 2000, p. 788) because players are able to make decisions affecting the actions of the character they are imitating. After a limited amount of time playing a violent video game, a player can "automatically prime aggressive thoughts" (Bushman & Anderson, 2002, p. 1680). The researchers concluded that players who had prior experience playing violent video games responded with an increased level of aggression when they encountered confrontation (Bushman & Anderson, 2002).

    In a Joint Statement (2000) before the Congressional Public Health Summit, a number of American medical associations -- the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry -- caution parents about violence in the media and its negative effect on children. Their report states that exposure to violent media can elevate aggressive feelings and thoughts, especially in children. These effects on aggressive behavior can be long-term. Although fewer studies have been conducted on interactive video games, evidence suggests that playing violent video games may have a more dramatic influence on the behavior of children and adolescents (Joint Statement, 2000).

Tips on managing your child's media consumption

Because of the popularity of video games, completely eliminating them from your child's life might be difficult. But there are a number of suggestions for decreasing the negative impact that they might have on your child. Here are a few tips:

  • Know the rating of the video games your child plays (see below).
  • Do not install video game equipment in your child's bedroom.
  • Set limits on how often and how long your child is allowed to play video games.
  • Monitor all of your child's media consumption -- video games, television, movies and Internet.
  • Supervise your child's Internet use -- there are now many "video games" available for playing online.
  • Take the time to discuss with your children the games they are playing or other media they are watching. Ask your children how they feel about what they observe in these video games, television programs or movies. This is an opportunity to share your feelings and grow closer with your child.
  • Share with other parents information about certain games or ideas for helping each other in parenting. 

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory body established in 1994 by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). The major video game manufacturers created this board after concerned groups and parents applied pressure over the content of video games. Similar to the movie industry's rating system, all major game companies now submit their new products for rating to specially trained raters at the ESRB. The ESRB rates over 1,000 games per year.

The ESRB looks at a number of factors when rating games. In particular, it considers the amount of violence, sex, controversial language and substance abuse found in a game. Based on its developed guidelines, the ESRB then gives an age recommendation and content descriptor to each game submitted. The following are the rating symbols currently in use, according to the ESRB Web site.

Early Childhood (EC): Content should be suitable for children 3 years and older and contain no objectional material.

Everyone (E): Content suitable for persons ages 6 and older. The game may contain minimal violence and some "comic mischief."

Teen (T): Content suitable for persons ages 13 and older. Content is more violent than (E) rating and contains mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.

Mature (M): Content suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Content definitely has more mature sexual themes, intense violence and stronger language.

Adults Only (AO): Content suitable only for adults and may contain graphic sex and/or violence. Adult Only products are not intended for persons under the age of 18.

Rating Pending (RP): Game has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting a final rating.

The ESRB Web site has more details about this rating system, as well as the "content descriptors" that are used in conjunction with the ratings on game packaging. The site is also useful for parents who want to search for the rating of a particular game.


Bushman, B. & Anderson, C. (2002). Violent Video Games and Hostile Expectations: A Test of the General Aggression Model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1679-1686.

Gentile, D. A. & Anderson, C. A. (2003). Violent video games: The newest media violence hazard. In D. A. Gentile (Ed.), Media violence and children. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing.

Gentile, D. A., Lynch, P., Linder, J. & Walsh, D. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 5-22.

Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children: Congressional Public Health Summit. (July 26, 2000.) Available: http://www.aap.org/advocacy/ releases/jstmtevc.htm, Accessed 9/2004

Walsh, D. (2000). Interactive violence and children: Testimony submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate. (March 21, 2000.) Available: http://commerce.senate.gov/ hearings/0321wal1.pdf (Acrobat), Accessed 9/2004