A new study suggests that when children are exposed to video games and other media that encourage positive social behaviors, they are more likely to behave in kind and helpful ways later down the road.
The study, published in Psychological Science, examined the link between prosocial media and levels of empathy and helpfulness in children from seven countries: Australia, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, Romania, and the United States.
“Media has a strong influence on children at a time when they are still developing and learning social norms,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.
“Children at this age are beginning to make the shift from parents to peers. It’s really at this age when all those rules about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior are very malleable. They’re trying to pick up cues as they’re becoming part of a peer network, and then adapting their behaviors to fit,” said Gentile.
While subtle differences did exist between cultures, the overall effect was similar for each group.
“One of the difficulties in doing cross-cultural comparisons is that the measures of prosocial behavior may not be as culturally appropriate for one culture as for another,” said Dr. Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology and director of ISU’s Center for the Study of Violence.
“What is most interesting to me is that despite the inherent difficulty with cross-cultural research, we found essentially the same types of significant effects across cultures; it’s just that these effects were somewhat stronger in some cultures.”
In addition to the cross-cultural study, the researchers measured the video game use of more than 3,000 children and teens in Singapore schools during a two-year period.
Students (in 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th grades) were asked to name their three favorite games, time spent playing, and the levels of both prosocial and violent content. They were also asked questions such as how they would feel if a family friend was sick or if they would spend money to help someone. Students also reported how often they performed a variety of helpful behaviors.
The findings reveal that the children’s behavior is influenced by the types of games they play. Over time, children who played violent games became less likely to show empathy and behave in helpful ways, whereas those who played prosocial games became more empathetic and helpful.
“It’s important to note that these changes happened over time,” said the researchers, “with earlier game play predicting future behaviors. This adds to previous research that has only looked at the short-term causal effects of prosocial and violent media.”
“Most of the games included in the study included some prosocial content, but most popular games tend to be violent,” noted the researchers. “For example, children may say that they are helping other characters in the game, but they may be helping fight a war or engaging in other violent acts.”
In other words, a game may have some “helpful” content but may also be a violent game, with the violence possibly producing harmful effects on players. In contrast, nonviolent games with lots of prosocial content produce positive effects on children and teens.
Source: Iowa State University