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Do violent video games make children violent?

Friday - 4/25/2014, 2:11pm  ET

Children playing video game (Thinkstock)
A new study reveals surprising results on whether children who play violent video games are more aggressive. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON -- Ask any parent: It is hard to tear a kid away from a video game. But there are concerns that violent games may promote violent thoughts, and make children and teens more aggressive.

The debate has been going on for some time, and recently intensified after researchers in Singapore released a study based on 3,000 kids ages 8 through 17.

The researchers said those who admitted playing a lot of violent video games showed more aggression later in life. Neither the sex of the child, past bad behavior or even the level of parental supervision made any difference.

The results, published in JAMA Pediatrics, created controversy -- in part because prior studies conducted in the United States indicated parental involvement has a big impact on whether a child exhibited aggressiveness.

Psychologist Angela Fletcher, with the Children's National Health System, says a lot more study is needed.

Fletcher says if a child already has aggressive tendencies, playing violent video games certainly won't help, but agrees the bottom line is parental involvement.

She says children react to games in many different ways, and parents need to keep a close watch on their kids and their behavior when gaming.

"We always tell parents to read the ratings on the game, go to the entertainment software rating board and look it up, " Fletcher says.

She also encourages parents to try out games with their kids and talk to them about any inappropriate violence those games might contain.

One big warning sign is if a child prefers to be alone all the time, not just when playing video games, says Fletcher.

Fletcher suggests putting games in a common area of the house where the family tends to gather so parents can monitor their kids and interject if they notice something wrong. It's also important to gain a feel for how much time a child or teen is playing video games.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association each recommend no more than one to three hours a day.

Benefits of playing video games

While there is plenty of talk about the dangers of video games, they can also be a force for good.

In her role as chief psychologist for the pain medicine complex at Children's National, Fletcher uses specially designed video games as a tool to diagnose patients and help them heal.

"We have found it is effective in distracting patients from pain, to help them learn how to incorporate and restore function in their life," she says.

Fletcher calls it the "future of the medical industry" and predicts the use of video game technology by health professionals will continue to grow.

She points to the success Children's has had using video games to reach its teenage patients. "It is the world of adolescents; it is what they live in now," she explains, "and so incorporating it into the treatment really helps them buy in."

Fletcher also says some commercial video games can have a positive impact on kids, such as the Madden football series and SimCity, though even those games require careful monitoring.

"Everything in moderation," she warns, "whether it is an aggressive video game or a sports video game."

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