Over the past decade, countless studies have arisen supposedly proving a causal link between video games, violent behaviour and depression. A new study conducted by Christopher J. Ferguson pinpoints why all of the others may have gotten it wrong.
Video games cause violent behaviour. Video games don’t cause violent behaviour. Video games cause depression. Video games combat depression. In the past year alone we’ve seen studies attempting to prove all of these points, but none of them have done what the new study from Texas A&M’s Christopher J. Ferguson and colleagues’ has done.
Using a sample of young men and women from three separate cultures – Mexican-American, English and Croatian – Ferguson and his team examined not only the effects violent video games and television programs had on violence and behaviour, but the effects the subjects’ personality traits had on their behaviours as well.
Is violent media influencing young people negatively, or is it just their personality?
Ferguson’s paper “Personality and media influences on violence and depression in a cross-national sample of young adults: Data from Mexican Americans, English and Croatians”, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, begins by questioning the findings of studies that have come before it. If violent media causes youth violence, why has youth violence been on the decline over the past decade in most industrialised nations?
It’s a question we’ve heard before, and one that pretty much remains unanswered, mainly because the only acceptable answer is that someone, somewhere, got something wrong.
Perhaps a study that finds playing violent video games increase aggressive behaviour is simply measuring the male gender’s tendency towards aggression reflected in video game play. There’s the possibility that, as some studies have suggested, that personality guides media preferences, and young adults with a personality tending towards trait aggressiveness will seek out entertainment that coincides with their personality. Perhaps choosing entertainment is an active process, and not a passive one.
Whatever the case, the full picture wasn’t being taken into consideration, so that’s what this new study did. The study sampled 232 Mexican-American young adults, 150 young people attending a London University, and 455 young Croatians, with each sample around 43 percent male.
Each subject was tested on the five-factor personality traits, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, trait aggression, media violence exposure, tendency towards violent crime and depression.
Initially the findings did indicate that video game and television violence exposure was a positive predictor of violent crime among the Mexican American group, a small-yet-significant number not present in the English or Croatian groups. No relationship was discovered between violent media and depression.
Once personality features were factored into the equation, however, the correlation disappeared. Violent media did not predict violent acts any of the three samples, with the exception of the Croatians sample, in which video game violence exposure was related with reduced violence, and television violence indicated an increase.
Personality seems to be the best indicator of violence and depression overall. In Mexican Americans and Croatians trait aggression indicated violent acts, while in the English sample low agreeableness indicated the same. Neurotic personality traits were the best predictor of depression.
The strongest message to take from this study is this:
Although even the bivariate correlations between media violence and violent acts in our samples were very small, our results suggest that such small correlations can be understood through underlying personality variables such as trait aggressiveness, neuroticism and Agreeableness. As such, assuming a clear linear relationship, particularly of a causal nature, between media violence and violent acts may be mistaken. Unfortunately most prior research on media violence has failed to adequately consider intervening personality variables.
It all comes down to knowing the subjects of your study. It’s easy to point to a teen getting into fights or shooting up a school and blame it on their video game habit, but until you truly know the person behind the behaviour you’re simply jumping to conclusions to support the argument you stand behind.