There is “no relationship between aggressive behaviour in teenagers and the amount of time spent playing violent video games”, according to a report from the Oxford Internet Institute published on Wednesday. Based on interviews with 1,004 young people — and, unlike many other studies, on corresponding interviews with their carers — the report’s lead author, Andrew Przybylski, highlighted the problem of cherry-picking results in some previous studies and its tendency to feed moral panic. “Despite interest in the topic by parents and policymakers,” he noted, “the research has not demonstrated that there is cause for concern.”
Those who have followed this debate for some time won’t be surprised. In March 2008, the psychologist Tanya Byron delivered the government-commissioned report, “Safer Children in a Digital World”, which concluded that, “We need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people . . . and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer.”
How far have we moved in the past 11 years? Not as far as Dr Byron might have hoped. Last year, the Trump White House explicitly linked the Parkland school shooting in February to violent games “shaping young people’s thoughts”, even releasing a mash-up video of violent scenes from games on the official White House YouTube channel. With more than 1.5m views to date, many presumably from adolescents, it’s certainly a novel approach to protection.
Moral panics are a fine way of agitating voters. But there’s something deeper going on. At root, the argument that media can directly cause violence is an argument about toxicity. It entails the claim that certain content is not only inappropriate but also actively corrupting — at least to the young or impressionable — and that the challenges it poses thus go beyond the scope of rating systems and parental judgment.
Paradoxically, this can be a reassuring perspective. If all that needs to be done in order to save our souls is to minimise exposure to something noxious, then the fault clearly lies with the technology rather than with us. We must impose a form of moral digital detox upon our dependants, bringing back the norms of a simpler and safer age.
This nostalgia isn’t accidental. The entire debate around harm caused by violence in media — video nasties, violent games, pulp fiction — is almost touchingly nostalgic in the age of social media manipulation, fake news and hate mobs for hire. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could improve society simply by protecting people from unpleasant things? Yes. Yet once you move beyond the obvious (if important) point that there are appropriate ages for different types of content, you rapidly find yourself confronting a reality where harm is most often born from ignorance, vulnerability and exploitation; and where it’s associated not so much with playing at combat as treating combat like play.
As the parent of two young children, aged five and three, my domestic life is yet to arrive at the issue of violence in media — but I’m already staring down the twin barrels of technological infiltration. First, there are the devices my wife and I struggle to put down, and through which the world tries to steal one of the most precious things we can offer our children — our undivided attention. Second, there are the devices that offer us respite by sucking up our children’s own time.
Managing both of these seductions seems to me far more closely (and troublingly) tied to young people’s contentment, resilience and long-term safety than any questions surrounding age-appropriate media content. I’m far more concerned about my children, as they grow older, spending unattended time on YouTube than I am about the bloodiness of single-player console games. And I’m far more concerned about the culture and social interactions surrounding even the most innocuous multi-player games than I am about any number of kids clustered in my living room dispatching zombies onscreen.
Many things can become harmful in the absence of mechanisms for safely exploring and understanding them; and the most important mechanisms we possess for keeping others and ourselves safe online are about time, attention and sharing. In our digital age, danger lies more than ever in the gaps in our knowledge and care; while the steps towards becoming a discerning digital citizen equally entail boundaries, permissions, conversations — and love and attention unstintingly given.
Like other media, games can be a refuge, a distraction, an experiment and a joy. But they should never become either a scapegoat for society’s inadequacies — or something we abandon our children to in the absence of attention and care.
The writer is author of ‘How to Thrive in the Digital Age’ and ‘Critical Thinking’
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