The link between violent video games and aggressive thoughts and behaviors has been firmly established. But parents who assume they merely need to keep their teenagers away from brutal amusements like Grand Theft Auto need to think again.
New research suggests the problem isn't only the games their kids play—it's also the ones that are favored by their friends.
"Violent video game play does not only have an impact on the player, but also on the player's social network," writes psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck. "Playing violent video games is associated with increased aggression, which then spreads among connected individuals."
Kids—and adults—tend to conform to the norms of their group. If, due to the effects of video game play, heightened aggression becomes the rule among your child's circle of friends, he or she may very well follow suit.
"Previous research has provided overwhelming evidence that psychological constructs can spread across network ties," Greitemeyer writes in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. "It is well-known that aggression and violence spread among connected individuals. A nationally representative sample of American adolescents showed that participants were more likely to engage in violent behavior if a friend had engaged in the same behavior."
To discover if this dynamic applies to video game-related aggression, he conducted an online survey featuring 998 participants (equally divided between men and women, with a mean age of 37). Each was asked "How often do you play violent video games (where the goal is to harm other game characters)?" They answered on a scale of one (never) to seven (very often).
Their aggressive behavior was determined by their answers to 10 statements, including "I have hit another person" and "I have said nasty things about another person behind his/her back." They estimated how often they had engaged in each such behavior over the past six months.
Finally, they answered the same set of questions about "five individuals they felt closest to." Those responses were averaged to create a composite score.
The key result: "Even participants that do not play violent video games themselves reported more aggression when their social network consists of individuals who do play violent video games," Greitemeyer reports.
"As in previous research, violent video game exposure was associated with increased aggression in the player," he writes. "The friends' level of aggression, in turn, was closely related to the participant's aggression. This pattern suggests that increased aggression as a consequence of violent video game exposure may spread across individuals."
Greitemeyer concedes that these results do not prove causality. But they are certainly disturbing.
"Psychologists and the public alike have been concerned that violent video game exposure has the potential to increase aggression on a societal level," he notes. This research suggests how easily that infection can spread.