Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids - And How to Break the Trance
The Trouble with Tech
Captain Kirk was the man.
At least that's what I thought as an impressionable fifth-grader back in 1974. Watching Star Trek re-runs, I'd fantasize about being on the bridge with badass Captain Kirk and cool Mr. Spock, traveling to worlds where no man had gone before; heading at warp speed to exotic planets and confidently seducing green women what more could a red-blooded young boy want?
Then there was all of that cool tech! That communicator that he'd so suavely flip open and command, Beam me up, Scotty. Desperate to be one of his crew, I made hundreds of paper versions of that flip phone communicator while I was supposed to be paying attention to my teacher, Mrs. Legheart, as she droned on and on about the Pilgrims or fractions or some such . . . but certainly not anything as exciting as my Star Trek inspired imagination.
I dreamed of a time when reality could catch up to my science fiction fueled fantasy, not realizing the wisdom of the old adage be careful what you wish for. Because, yes indeed, the tech of Kirk is here but at a very, very high price.
Believe me, I didn't want that to be the case; I wanted, I yearned for guilt-free tech. Unfortunately, it seems that we, as a society, have entered into a Faustian deal. Yes, we have these amazing handheld marvels of the digital age tablets and smartphones, miraculous glowing devices that connect people throughout the globe and can literally access the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of our hand.
But what is the price of all this future tech? The psyche and soul of an entire generation. The sad truth is that for the oh-so-satisfying ease, comfort and titillation of these jewels of the modern age, we've unwittingly thrown an entire generation under the virtual bus.
C'mon, aren't you being a bit dramatic? you might ask. But look around you. Look at any restaurant that has families with kids; look at any place where kids and teens hang out pizzerias, schoolyards, friend's houses what do you see?
The head-down, glassy-eyed zombification of kids whose faces are illuminated by glowing screens. Like the soulless, expressionless people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the zombies in The Walking Dead, one by one our young people have fallen victim to this digital plague.
I had my first glimpse of this nascent global epidemic back in the summer of 2002 on the island of Crete. My newlywed wife and I had planned a trip to Greece land of my parents and ancestors as an escape from a hectic life in New York.
After the usual stops at Mykonos and Santorini, we decided to take the ferry down to the more rugged island of Crete and hike several hours down the ancient Samarian Gorge to the remote coastal village of Loutro. It is a magical place: Stunning, sun-drenched Greek beach with laughing bathers splashing around in the clearest blue water; a beautiful, tranquil place that time forgot . . . There are no cars, no convenience stores, no TV, no flashing lights just traditional whitewashed houses and a handful of small waterfront inns and their beachfront tavernas.
Loutro is also known as a go-to family destination. The seclusion of the traffic-free village makes it an ideal playground for kids: kayaking, swimming, climbing of rocks, games of tag, leaps into the water it is a kid's paradise.
During our first day there, after having spent the whole morning at the beach, we stopped by one of the cafes for a frappe. While there, I asked the waiter where the restrooms were and was pointed toward some steep stairs down to a dimly lit, low-ceilinged basement. Once downstairs, I could see an odd glow emanating from a corner in the darkness. Squinting to adjust to the darkened room, I was able to see the light source: it was Loutro's anemic version of an Internet cafe two old Apple computers on a tiny table in a corner of the depressing cellar. As I looked closer, I could see the dark silhouettes of two pudgy American kids playing video games with their round faces illuminated by screens just inches away from their faces.
That's odd, I thought; one of the world's most beautiful seascapes, where the local Greek kids were playing from sunup to sundown was just a few feet away, yet these two were holed up in the darkness in the middle of a sunny afternoon.
As I chanced into that cafe a couple more times over the week that we were there, those two kids were always in that basement with their illuminated faces. Not being a parent myself yet, I didn't think that much about the pudgy kids with the glowing faces and wrote them off, rather judgmentally, I must admit, as probably just the unhealthy children of bad parents.
Yet I never forgot the hypnotized expressions of those boys playing in that horrible cellar while paradise was just over their heads. Slowly, as with the drip, drip, drip of a faucet, I began to realize that the hypnotized, glassy-eyed stares were spreading; like a virtual scourge, the Glow Kids were multiplying.
Is this just a harmless indulgence or fad like some sort of digital hula hoop? Some say that glowing screens may even be good for kids an interactive educational tool.
But the research doesn't bear that out. In fact, there is not one credible research study that shows that a child exposed to more technology earlier in life has better educational outcomes than a tech-free kid; while there is some evidence that screen-exposed kids may have some increased pattern-recognition abilities, there just isn't any research that shows that they become better students or better learners.
Instead, what we do have is a growing mountain of evidence showing that there can be some very significant negative clinical and neurological effects on Glow Kids. Brain-imaging research is showing that glowing screens like those of iPads are as stimulating to the brain's pleasure center and as able to increase levels of dopamine (the primary feel-good neurotransmitter) as much as sex does. This brain-orgasm effect is what makes screens so addictive for adults, but even more so for children with still-developing brains that just aren't equipped to handle that level of stimulation.
What's more, an ever-increasing amount of clinical research correlates screen tech with psychiatric disorders like ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, increased aggression and even psychosis. Perhaps most shocking of all, recent brain-imaging studies conclusively show that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a young person's developing brain in the same way that cocaine addiction can.
That's right, a kid's brain on tech looks like a brain on drugs.
In fact, glowing screens are such a powerful drug that the University of Washington has been using a virtual reality video game to help burn victims with pain management during their treatments. Amazingly, while burn patients are immersed in the game, they experience a pain-reducing, morphine-like analgesic effect and thus don't require any actual narcotics. While this is a wonderful use of screen technology for pain-management medicine, we are also unwittingly giving this digital morphine to kids.
Ironically, while we've declared a so-called War on Drugs, we've allowed this virtual drug which Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls electronic cocaine; which Commander Dr. Andrew Doan, who has an M.D. and Ph.D. in neuroscience and heads addiction research for the U.S. Navy, calls digital pharmakeia (Greek for drug); and which Chinese researchers call "electronic heroin" to slip into the homes and classrooms of our youngest and most vulnerable, seemingly oblivious to any negative effects.
Meanwhile, China has identified Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as its number-one health crisis, with more than 20 million Internet-addicted teens, and South Korea has opened 400 tech addiction rehab facilities and given every student, teacher and parent a handbook warning them of the potential dangers of screens and technology. Yet here in the United States, clueless and sometimes corrupt school bureaucrats are pushing to put glowing tablets, yes, electronic cocaine into the hands of every kindergartener.
Why not? Tech in the classroom is big business, estimated to top $60 billion by 2018. Yet what I also discovered as I researched this book is that tech in the classroom is also the story of greed, scandal and FBI investigations.
Even if our schools are letting us down by not protecting kids from the dangers of age-inappropriate tech, surely parents are beginning to see the problems associated with screens? Unfortunately, many caring and well-meaning parents are either simply not tuned in to how damaging screens are, or those who do sense that there may be a problem remain in convenience-induced denial.
After all, it is difficult to hear that something that so many of us have come to love can somehow be bad for us and even worse for our kids. We've become so dependent on the digital babysitter or the so-called virtual learning tool that we don't really want to hear that our handy-dandy smartphones and our wonderful, all-knowing iPads can actually be damaging our kids' brains, say it ain't so!
But like it or not, it is so.
As one of the country's foremost addiction experts, I know addiction when I see it. And I'm seeing it in epidemic proportions in the obsessive video gaming, compulsive texting and hypnotized stares of the kids I treat. Indeed, in the past decade, I've done clinical work with over a thousand teenagers and have noticed the insidious and addictive effect of screens, which has led to a whole host of clinical disorders and a digitally induced adolescent malaise.
Yet as screens glaze children the world over, parents either ignore the problem or just throw up their hands and sigh, "It's just the way kids are today". But kids haven't always been this way; it's only been six years since the invention of the iPad and in that blink of time, an entire generation of kids has been psychologically impacted and neurologically rewired.
I'm fully aware that I may get some pushback or even anger from tech lovers and video gamers. But neither this book nor I am anti-tech. Rather, this book is aimed at informing adults who care about the society they live in while also warning and informing parents about the clinical and neurological dangers that excessive screen exposure can have on their kids.
I love my tech. I also love driving my car; I just don't think that my eight-year-old twins should be driving it yet. So fret not, video warriors; my focus is tech effects on children. I am not here to advocate pulling the plug on those of you past the age of consent. Although you might want to think about getting outdoors a little every now and again. To quote the great William Shatner in his famous Star Trek convention parody on Saturday Night Live years ago: Get a life! And I don't mean a synthetic life or even a Second Life. I mean an honest-to-goodness, walking-outdoors, smelling-the-roses, having-a-girlfriend, feeling-the-grass-under-your-
Please don't get me wrong; I really do understand the appeal. I'm not just an addiction expert, I'm also a recovering addict, one of the original masters of escaping reality. Truth be told, even though I have been in recovery from my addiction issues for many, many years, I find it increasingly challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with my seductive little smartphone.
Running a high-end rehab facility and treating many patients, I rationalized that I always need to be available in case of client emergencies. But the reality is that it's hard for me to unplug even while on vacation. Like the cardiologist who smokes, I realize that I'm not immune to addictive tendencies creeping back into my life. And I'm also left wondering: if I'm having such a hard time managing my tech usage with my fully developed adult brain, with all of my training and addiction recovery work, what chance does an impulsive eight-year-old have?
Whatever we may think about tech usage for adults, a person doesn't need to be an addiction expert or a neuroscientist or a Luddite to see the undeniably negative effects of age-inappropriate tech, both in the latest research and in the everyday reality of plugged-in and tuned-out kids.
Yet as smart writers and witty bloggers debate the pros and cons of technology, the ever-increasing ubiquity of tech is doing real damage to kids now.
As the late, great Yogi would say, it's getting late early.
Sag Harbor, NY
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Mass Media Effects
Do things that kids see on screens really influence their behavior?
Yeah, we know commercials can get kids to ask for everything from Happy Meals to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures and that what Katy Perry wears can influence the preteen fashions of countless young girls. But the question that many ask is: can electronic media with violent content, like certain video games and TV shows, make kids more aggressive and more violent?
Politicians and advocacy groups have certainly thought so. In 2005, after a public outcry over the explicit content in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, then-U.S. senator Hillary Clinton became so concerned about the influence of violent or sexualized video games that she introduced a bill that criminalized the selling to minors of video games that were rated mature for adults only.
Arguing that those games were a silent epidemic of desensitization, the Family Entertainment Protection Act was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology. Despite the former First Lady's best efforts, the bill expired without becoming law at the end of the 109th Congress.
Trying to criminalize, censor or label problematic media content was nothing new. A few years earlier, back in the early 1990s, right around the time when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were still smelling like teen spirit and a pre-Monica Lewinsky Bill Clinton was the fresh new face in D.C., there was a fierce culture war going on, one that rages to this day.
In this cultural divide, you had the family values faction, led by Tipper Gore and the so-called values warriors of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, vs. the coarsening of the culture crowd led by hip hop icons, at that time, 2 Live Crew, who extolled the virtue of creative expression and free speech, while painfully contorting the definition of art and protected speech with lyrics rife with racial epithets, profanity and misogyny.
So Tipper vs. 2 Live Crew became must-see-TV for the sheer theatrics of the cultural polarities that they represented. The values warriors felt that content mattered and that certain language and images simply shouldn't be accepted in the media of a civilized society. After all, kids were watching . . . and listening . . . and, most importantly, imitating. Such vileness surely must be influencing their impressionable little hearts and minds, the thinking went.
Luther Campbell, aka 2 Live Crew's front man, Luke Skywalker, wasn't having it. But 2 Live Crew was under siege by the values warriors; with songs like Pop that Pussy and Me So Horny, their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was viewed as pornography; the American Family Association (AFA) hired attorney Jack Thompson* to appeal to Florida governor Bob Martinez to declare their music obscene.
In 1990 County Circuit Court judge Mel Grossman found that grounds for charges of obscenity violations did indeed exist, and on March 15 of that year, a 19-year-old Sarasota, Florida, record store clerk was arrested on a felony charge after selling a copy of the album.
In June of 1990, Nasty became the first record to be legally ruled as "obscene" as decided by U.S. district court Judge Jose Gonzalez which consequently made the album illegal to sell. Record chains and independent stores stopped selling the controversial record, but Charles Freeman, a local Florida retailer, was arrested two days after the ruling for selling a copy to an undercover cop. This was followed by the arrests of three members of 2 Live Crew after they performed songs from their album at Club Futura in Hollywood, Florida.
Campbell, aka Skyywalker, didn't understand why he and his music were under attack, saying that people should focus on more important things like poverty and hunger. He decided to fight back; hoping to prevent additional obscenity arrests and reverse the pornographic stigma attached to the album, Campbell's attorney filed suit on March 16, 1990, in Federal District Court in Fort Lauderdale, seeking to declare that the record was not obscene.
In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Campbell said that his music is adult comedy, not pornography and that his many critics simply didn't understand it. These people act like I invented the idea of sexually explicit material, Campbell said. Haven't they ever heard of Richard Pryor or Andrew Dice Clay? . . . Why, all of a sudden, is everybody picking on me? Campbell went on to say: The way I feel about it, 2 Live Crew is no different from sculptors who carve naked statues. We're not sex fiends. In our minds, we're artists.
But Florida's governor and the U.S. District Court didn't share Campbell's sense of humor or outlook on art. And Campbell and his music continued to get eviscerated by media watchdog groups like Focus on the Family and the Reverend Donald Wildmon's Family Association for being pornographic. Meanwhile, the national media was eating it up, with the Los Angeles Times saying that the 2 Live Crew legal battle had the blow by blow intensity of a prize fight.
If it were a boxing match, we might say that the Crew got off the canvas and staged a furious 15th-round comeback, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the obscenity ruling of Judge Gonzalez in 1992. During the trial, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., testified in defense of the group's lyrics, arguing that the material that the county alleged to be profane actually had important roots in African-American vernacular, games and literary traditions and should be protected.
The court agreed. Aided by all of the controversy, As Nasty As They Wanna Be went on to sell more than two million records.
Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) had a victory of sorts as well. In 1990 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in order to alert parents to potentially unsuitable material, agreed to put a black-and-white warning label reading Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics on records deemed to have excessive profanity or inappropriate references. So 2 Live Crew was allowed to sing their songs, but their records and all others with questionable content released since then got that big Parental Advisory sticker slapped on the cover.
Even though 2 Live Crew had won the legal battle, the question remained: was their music so vulgar that it was negatively influencing the youth of America? After all, the idea that words, lyrics and images could be impacting the young and impressionable was not a new one; mass media boogey-men had been scaring parents for decades, from Reefer Madness to Joe Camel; from rock and roll to Marilyn Monroe; from Elvis's hips to Steal this Book.
Even our beloved comic books were once upon a time in the media crosshairs (no first-person-shooter pun intended) in the 1950s, when they were the subject of a Senate hearing investigating their role in juvenile delinquency. At that hearing, the forensic scientist Frederic Wertham decried the endless stream of brutality in comic books, denouncing one title in particular as embodying sadistic fantasies that would be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children.
Just what was the sadistic and brutal comic book that Wertham warned the Senate about? Clue: He wears a red cape and has the letter "S" on his chest. Yes, that's right, our beloved Superman was once suspected of corrupting the youth of this country and contributing to their misconduct.
In the 1960s, the film industry came under similar scrutiny when controversial movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with its sexual themes and profanity led the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to abandon the old system of self-censorship and adopt the film rating system that's still in use today. Even though that Mike Nichols film was one of the top-grossing movies of 1966 and received critical acclaim and 13 Oscar nominations, there was a public backlash that certain content needed to be labeled with an adult-content rating as a tool for parents.
In 1975 the television industry which had long used censors to monitor questionable content created the short-lived family viewing hour, a policy that was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), according to which each network had a responsibility to air family-friendly programming during the first hour of prime time. After litigation, the policy was overturned in court in 1977.
While the FCC had federally mandated it, the impetus for the family viewing hour had been a public groundswell in 1974 regarding the amount of sex and violence on TV, with one television scene in particular causing the bulk of the backlash: a lesbian gang-rape scene in Born Innocent, the notorious 1974 NBC television movie starring Linda Blair; a disturbing scene that had featured a plunger handle was even briefly shown in daytime commercials for the film.
Reflecting the idea that the media can influence real-life behavior, the scene was pulled from the movie after it was blamed for the rape of a nine-year-old girl with a glass soda bottle by some of her peers. The California Supreme Court in Olivia v. National Broadcasting Company (1981) declared that the film wasn't obscene and that NBC wasn't liable for the actions of the kids who had committed the crime.
Yet while NBC was found legally not liable by the judicial system, the field of psychology has been able to demonstrate that the media can influence people's behavior. Not counting obvious examples such as TV commercials' shaping people's shopping or eating habits, there is a significant amount of research that shows that television violence can increase viewer aggression.
In a 2014 meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, psychologists Dr. George Comstock and Dr. Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to television violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength. Their results, published in the journal Communication Research, showed a positive and significant correlation between television violence and aggressive behavior.
Dr. Comstock is no lightweight when it comes to understanding the media's effects; having earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, he's currently the S. I. Newhouse Professor at the School of Public Communications at Syracuse and is the author of Television and the American Child as well as the former science advisor and senior research coordinator of the U.S. Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior.
Supporting Dr. Comstock's study is an earlier (2005) comprehensive review of the research on media and violence that was published in The Lancet by Dr. Kevin D. Browne from the University of Nottingham Medical School and Dr. Catherine Hamilton-Giachristis from the University of Birmingham.
The weight of the studies reviewed supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization with regard to violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children. According to Drs. Browne and Hamilton-Giachristis: There is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and video, and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions, increasing the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially in boys.
Yet many people give an eye roll when media effects on behavior are mentioned. I watched a lot of murders on TV and I haven't killed anyone! is a typical response that I hear.
When Jim Carrey tweeted that he was distancing himself from his film Kick-Ass 2 because he felt uncomfortable with its violent content in the wake of the Newtown school shootings, Mark Millar, a creator of the Kick-Ass comic book series and one of the movie's executive producers, responded in an August 23, 2013, New York Times article that he has never quite bought the notion that violence in fiction leads to violence in real life any more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more boy wizards in real life.
Cute quote. But in addition to being nonsensical, it's simply not accurate.
Because the research does correlate violent content with increased aggression. Indeed, at the Congressional Public Health Summit in July of 2000, the respected heads of the country's six leading public health groups (the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) ALL signed a Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children:
At this time, well over 1,000 studies including reports from the Surgeon General's office, the National Institute of Mental Health, and numerous studies conducted by leading figures within our medical and public health organizations our own members point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.
The strongly worded statement went on to say, Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life. . . . Viewing violence may lead to real life violence. Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children who are not so exposed.
This illustrious group charged with safeguarding our public health also took a shot at the naysayers in the entertainment industry who have, for decades, tried to dispute the harmful influence of violent media on children:
There are some in the entertainment industry who maintain that 1) violent programming is harmless because no studies exist that prove a connection between violent entertainment and aggressive behavior in children, and 2) young people know that television, movies, and video games are simply fantasy. Unfortunately, they are wrong on both counts.
The statement concluded by pointing a finger toward the potency of interactive media (i.e., video games): Although less research has been done on the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people, preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music.
Keep in mind that that report, indicating the nascent state of interactive media research and warning about the significantly more severe effects of video games, was written 16 years ago; since then, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have been done that confirm the link between violent video games and increased aggression.
Also in 2000, the FBI released a report on shootings in schools that stated that media violence is indeed a risk factor in such shootings. In 2003 a panel of media violence experts convened by the National Institute of Mental Health, at the request of the U.S. surgeon general, published its comprehensive report on the effects of media violence on youth and affirmed that media violence is a significant causal factor in aggression and violence.
In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its own report on violent TV programming and its effects on children and agreed with the surgeon general that there is strong evidence that exposing kids to violent media can increase their aggressive behavior. Most recently, in 2009, our friends at the American Academy of Pediatrics published a comprehensive report on media violence in the journal Pediatrics that stated: Exposure to violence in media, including television, movies, music and video games represents a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents.
For good measure, the report added: The weight of scientific evidence has been convincing to pediatricians, with more than 98% of pediatricians . . . expressing the personal belief that media violence affects children's aggression. Yet, the entertainment industry, the American public, politicians, and parents all have been reluctant to accept these findings and to take action. The debate should be over.
I think we all get why the entertainment industry, including video game manufacturers, may want to keep these studies on the down-low after all, there are billions of dollars at stake. But why are the parents late to the dance? It is mind-boggling, in light of all of the research that exists, that there are still parents who fail to see that letting their kid play Call of Duty for hours on end may not be a good thing.
Of course, this is not to say that someone who watched Kojak shoot a bad guy on TV or any kid who plays Call of Duty will go out and fire off a few rounds at someone. It simply means that, as we know from Social Learning Theory, we learn by watching things; we are influenced and shaped by behavioral models, both in the real world and in the media. The extent to which those media models and shaping influences impact us is largely determined by other mediating factors (psychiatric/emotional factors, IQ, environment and other countervailing influences, etc.).
This idea that video games are just one possible risk factor amongst many in increasing aggression and violence is echoed in the Congressional Public Health Summit Joint Statement: We in no way mean to imply that entertainment violence is the sole, or even necessarily the most important factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence . . . numerous other factors may all contribute to these problems.
As Ohio State University professor Dr. Brad Bushman, one of the most prolific researchers on the media's role in aggressive behavior, puts it: No researcher I know would say violence in the media is the only risk factor for aggression or violence or that it's the most important factor. It's usually a culmination of factors. According to Dr. Bushman, while video games aren't the only risk factor for violence, they can be viewed as an amplifier.
Dr. David Walsh, a child psychologist who co-authored one of the studies connecting violent video games to aggression, explains the multiple-factors perspective this way: Not every kid [who] plays a violent video game is gonna turn to violence. And that's because they don't have . . . other risk factors going on. It's a combination of risk factors. . .
If we can begin to understand exposure to violent video games as a contributing risk factor toward acting violently or, using Dr. Bushman's term, as an amplifier, we then have to also understand that such aggression amplification would, based on other factors, affect different kids in different ways, just as any aggression amplifier may affect any adult differently.
For example, let's say that we have three random adults who all drink two cups of their beloved Starbucks mocha latte every morning. We know from research and some of you may know this experientially that caffeine, as a stimulant, can also lead to increased aggression and can be an aggression amplifier.
Now that's not to say that Starbucks devotees are homicidal maniacs; it merely means that a person's caffeine consumption can amplify or increase his or her aggression level. So let's say that our three random and amped-up Starbucks fans get into their cars to drive to work and all three get cut off by rude drivers. All three have potentially had their aggression amplified by the caffeine, but that doesn't mean that all three will react or act aggressively or violently, because other factors also come into play.
Two of our coffee-wired participants may just bite their tongues and grip their steering wheels a bit tighter as they continue their drive to work. Yet our third driver might have had an argument with his or her spouse that morning another aggression amplifier and, let's say, has also been worried and stressed about possible job loss. And perhaps driver number three has poor coping skills and is temperamentally predisposed toward aggressive reactions because of being wired with a short fuse.
Thus the caffeine, the stress of the job and the argument that morning all act as aggression amplifiers for an already aggressively predisposed person, pushing that person over the edge into a fit of full-blown road rage.
Yet the other drivers had coffee and increased aggression but without going after the drivers who had cut them off; can we then conclude that coffee didn't play a role in the third driver's road rage? No, we can't; in fact, it most likely was a factor, but we certainly can't say that it was the sole factor, or even the most important factor and it certainly wasn't the caffeine's fault, just as we can't say that the domestic argument or the job stress caused the road rage incident. But were they all contributing factors in the driver's tipping point? Obviously.
* * *
Researcher Dr. Walsh also points to the developmental vulnerabilities that teenagers have that makes them more susceptible to certain risk factors: The impulse control center of the brain, the part of the brain that enables us to think ahead, consider consequences, manage urges that's the part of the brain right behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex. That's under construction during the teenage years. In fact, the wiring on that is not completed until the early twenties.
Walsh further explains that this diminished impulse control is heightened when a person has additional risk factors such as being from a troubled household, having emotional issues and/or being unduly stressed: And so when a young man with a developing brain, already angry, spends hours and hours rehearsing violent acts and then he's put in this situation of emotional stress, there's a likelihood that he will literally go to that familiar pattern that's been wired repeatedly, perhaps thousands and thousands of times.
When it comes to gaming effects, repetition matters. And, sure enough, there have been studies that show that aggression increases the longer a person sits and plays a violent game.
This repetitive aspect of video gaming is a key dynamic in increased aggression. According to Dr. Russell Heusmann, a psychologist at the University of Michigan: The important thing is repetition. I think any child can play Grand Theft Auto or a first-person shooter a few times, and it's not going to have much effect. But if they play day in and day out, over a period of years, any psychologist who understands the power of observational learning is going to find it hard to believe that it's not going to have a major effect on increasing risk.
Yet while most researchers tend to agree that there is indeed a strong correlation between violent gaming and increased aggression, some researchers, like Dr. Chris Ferguson, feel that increased aggression is not only an imprecise concept but one that's difficult to quantify.
Dr. Ferguson is a Stetson University professor and media-effects researcher who has been the most vocal critic of the increased-aggression studies. Having written a pro-gaming piece for the December 7, 2011, issue of Time magazine (Video Games Don't Make Kids Violent) and having been quoted in dozens of pro-video game articles and blogs, Ferguson has become the darling of video gamers everywhere. In fact, odds are that if you see a headline saying something like No Link Between Video Games and Real Life Violence, Chris Ferguson's name will be close by.
According to Ferguson, studies that show increased aggression have no practical utility: Let's imagine you played a violent video game and it made you one-half of a percent more aggressive (as one study showed) would you notice that? I don't think you would. To put it into context, if tomorrow you're one-half of a percent more happy than you are today, what does that really mean? It's a very tiny effect. . . . If my son was one-half a percent more aggressive today than he was yesterday, I'd never notice that.
But as we've already noted, the research shows that the aggression effect increases with time and repetition. The studies that Ferguson points to, which indicate a half-percent increase, were those in which participants played a violent video game for 15 to 30 minutes and then were assessed for aggression immediately thereafter (more later about how that's done). We wouldn't expect to see whole-cloth personality changes in 15 to 30 minutes. But what about the kid immersed in gaming the kid playing hour after hour in a virtual bunker?
If we understand aggression to be on a continuum that's affected by repetition and time played, where might we say that the proverbial tipping point to violence is? Where on that continuum does an angry kid get violent or an already unstable Adam Lanza who fatally shot 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 go from being just more aggressive to being homicidal and violent?
While Iowa State University professor Doug Gentile echoes the multiple-risk-factor perspective, he also very appropriately suggests that we be careful about not reflexively pointing the finger of blame to just one cause especially after tragedies like Newtown:
Once we have a horrible tragedy like this, it really distorts the way we think about the issue . . . we have what I call a culprit mentality. What's the cause of this? Well, it's never the cause. There's never one reason for anything like this. There's never one reason. Humans are complex.
Dr. Gentile is right. Post-Newtown-style rushes to judgment, in which video games are blamed for tragedies, shouldn't happen; yet nor should we discount their impact as contributing factors in a larger, complex dynamic.
Interestingly, physician and epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin views the spread of real-life violence as being analogous to an infectious disease and violent video gaming as a risk factor in contracting that disease.
As the founder of Cure Violence (www.cureviolence.org), an innovative organization that has successfully reduced gun violence in major cities and countries throughout the world, Dr. Slutkin employs the Cure Violence Health Model, which applies the same methods that he learned fighting infectious diseases to eradicating violence. In keeping with the infectious-disease analogy, first-person-shooter games weaken the psychological immune system and change the odds of whether violence (the disease) takes root within the person or not.
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While we can argue about the degree to which the media influences people, we have to, if we are to be honest as we look at the research, acknowledge that the media while not all-powerful certainly does have an impact as a potential contributing factor in increasing aggressive behavior.
But, as the Congressional Public Health Summit statement indicated, not all media are created equal in their abilities to shape and impact. That's essentially the entire premise of this book; that the new virtual media primarily because of its ubiquity, interactive nature, realism and intensity has an even bigger impact, an even larger shaping influence, than the mass media that preceded it. And within the new virtual media realm, video games have specifically been targeted for research on electronic media and increased aggression over the past 15 years.
Indeed, the first major violent video game study took place even further back than that, way back in 1984 the year made famous by George Orwell. Published in the Journal of Communication, that study looked at the rather quaint idea of violent video arcade games, surveying 250 high school students (110 boys; 140 girls) who were quizzed about their video game - playing habits, violent TV - viewing habits and aggressive behavior with a series of questions such as, Somebody picks a fight with you on the way home from school. What do you do?
Students who watched violent TV tended to also play violent video games; those students were significantly related to manifest physical aggression. In the end, the researcher's conclusions were somewhat ambiguous: The data indicate that video game playing is neither the menace that many of its critics have portrayed it to be, nor necessarily without possible negative consequences.
But 1984 arcade video games are qualitatively an entirely different animal from today's first-person-shooter games. Since that early study, we now have the benefit of hundreds of others with tens of thousands of participants, with the vast majority of that research attempting to explore whether exposure to violent media increases aggression.
* Jack Thompson is the same attorney we'll read about in the next chapter, involving the 2003 Grand Theft Auto murder trial and subsequent Sony lawsuit of Devin Moore, the Alabama teenager who was convicted of killing three police officers.
Over 20 years later, a more circumspect Luther Campbell said during a 2014 interview that if he had it to do all over again, 2 Live Crew wouldn't have been so extreme. Some of the things that were said I wouldn't have allowed to be said, he explained. In some of the cases, some of the guys went overboard.