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October 18, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 90

Should My Kid Play Violent Video Games?

Episode 90

Do violent video games normalize violence? A parent whose son becomes more aggressive with his sisters after playing certain games writes in asking for advice. Is it best to pull the plug on games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, even if they’re important to a boy’s social life? Dr. Lisa unpacks the research on how violent video games affect kids and offers guidelines to consider. Reena asks how old kids should be if they are going to play video games and describes how allowing her son to play Call of Duty turned into a teachable moment. Dr. Lisa and Reena lay out the key conversations that parents might want to have with young gamers.

October 18, 2022 | 32 min

Transcript | Should My Kid Play Violent Video Games?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 90: Should My Kid Play Violent Video Games?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: I love the feel of Halloween in the air. 


LISA: I do too. I do too. I will tell you actually Reena, out of all the climates in the world, October in Ohio is my favorite. It is so beautiful here. 


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yeah. It’s just so crisp and cool and the leaves are perfect. I love it. 


REENA: Yeah. Well we have picked out Halloween costumes, which are not to be revealed until Halloween. We didn’t know whether to go scary, but we decided to go sweet. We’ll explain later, you’ll have to check the Instagram for that. 


LISA: Excellent. 


REENA: But what about you? 


LISA: My sixth grader is all in on Halloween, as I was all in on Halloween. And so she’s got a costume for herself and she also makes costumes for us, and so it’s fun. You know, when she was little sometimes Halloween could feel scary and we’d have to account for that, but now that she’s older it’s mostly just nothing but fun.


REENA: She makes costumes for you guys? 


LISA: She does. Last year she made me a sushi costume that was amazing. 


REENA: No way. 


LISA: And this year my folks are going to be visiting, my mom and I are going to be salt and pepper. 


REENA: Oh my gosh. Wait, Salt-N-Pepa like the rap artist or…


LISA: No, like the shakers. 


REENA: I thought maybe we were going to have to play some Salt-N-Pepa music today. 


LISA: That would be fascinating. We would do our best with it, but no, we actually went to the hardware store and found aluminum items that actually really look like the top of a salt and pepper shaker and we’re going to wear them on our heads and then wear all white and all black. 


REENA: Oh my gosh we’re going to have to post our Halloween costumes this year. This is just incredible. 


LISA: Let’s do it. 


REENA: Remember that period when the kids could just be easily scared by costumes? They were very little. 


LISA: Yeah, yeah. 


REENA: So, you know, it’s just funny how things change, but now I feel in many ways the scary parts are sometimes video games that they play, and should they be playing these shooting video games? It’s a question we get quite a bit in our inbox, where people want to know what’s the right thing to do. So we got this letter, ‘Hi Dr. Lisa and Reena, I have an 11-year-old son that loves Fortnite and would probably love Call of Duty if I allowed it. Here’s the problem: I despise first-person shooter games. I’ve been particularly sensitive to them recently since the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, but they’ve always unnerved me. I have attempted to implement boundaries around them, such as play limits, not allowing him to play online with strangers, and having conversations about his general behavior. My son began playing the game three years ago, to my dismay, because he felt left out at school. Pretty quickly though his behavior became aggressive at home with his little sisters, and we put the game on hold. But we tried again a year later, and once again an aggressive streak exposed itself, and we put it on hold again. He’s on his third attempt currently, and I have not noticed an uptake in aggression and he is managing his time within the limits I’ve set, but I’m still very uncomfortable with how easily phrases born in the game roll off his tongue. Like this one, ‘I’ve got a headshot’ or his seemingly increased knowledge about different types of guns and their power capabilities. The sound of the game, the gunfire, and a majority of the vocabulary he and his friends use make me really uncomfortable. But he gets really upset when I tell him I don’t think I want him to play anymore. He says, it’s not real life mom. Do you have any advice? Thank you.’ Oh my, my goodness, this letter just resonates on so many levels, hitting just so many themes. The first thing, Lisa, I want to remind folks, if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you know that at the start of our season, when we in the midst of the pandemic, you said to me, video game playing, for a lot of boys between a certain age, is quite normal and a way they socialized, and it helped me rethink, okay, I’m going to actually get a Xbox and allow him to play. What stands out to you about this letter? 


LISA: Well, I think that’s exactly the tension that this parent is struggling with, and has struggled with so elegantly. I mean there’s so much good parenting described in this letter, of trying to make it work, reeling the kid in, letting him try again, reeling him back, but the tension is it’s a social life for a lot of guys, and certainly 11-year-old boys. Like this is a lot of how they socialize. But Reena I have a question for you. So yes, especially in the thick of the pandemic, a lot of boys were living their best social lives through their video games, where have you come down on this question of the kinds of video games that your kids play? 


REENA: I have to say you were right. I didn’t understand the social angle of all this until you made me realize it, and it was so helpful for him, especially in the pandemic, and he still plays, he still plays. But what stands out to me in this letter, as a mom, first off, her concerns and everything about the guns, that was the reason I did not want him involved in any of this. 


LISA: Yeah. 


REENA: So what this parent lays out, I feel. Because when I’m thinking about video games, it stands out in my mind. But I don’t notice in my own son aggression towards his sister, the way this parent. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit about what you’re hearing when you read this letter and you hear her saying the aggression that comes out every time he plays. 


LISA: Yeah. 


REENA: What do you think is happening there? 


LISA: Well this is what we know. Violent video games can have that effect. This has been thoroughly researched, and we do indeed know that, if we think about kids sort of arraying themselves on a range of how violent they are, that violent video games are going to move your kid up a notch. And so what it means is, if your kid is prone to express anger through violence, playing video games is going to increase the likelihood they’ll do that. What we also know, I just really want to give a thorough running through of the research, if your kid is not violent at all, if that is just not where they live in any way, we have research showing video games are not going to make them violent. So you know, if you know that your kid handles him or herself really well around aggression in the real world, that can inform your decision about whether or not violent video games are okay for you. But this boy is very much matching the research of, you know, it sounds like he can get violent on his own, and then when he’s playing these games he gets more violent. I will say. 


REENA: What causes that Lisa? What causes that of him watching it and then suddenly, you notice the uptake, that he just goes crazy, it seems? 


LISA: Well I think when we come to kids’ digital lives, the word I’m always settling back to is this idea of norms. You know, that it norms things that we don’t want normed. It makes typical and everyday things that should actually be very very far away from us or very strange or very rare. And so the games do norm this idea that you like, deal with the world in this very very aggressive way, and yes the guy’s saying it’s not real life, and yes, I want to acknowledge that on the third try he has not increased his violence, like that he has, the good parenting described in this letter of giving the kid a chance, and then he gets more violent, and then the games go away, so far on attempt number three, he’s holding it together in real life. 


REENA: So you attribute that, the change in the behavior, to the parenting? That you’re saying that the parent did the right thing here. 


LISA: I’m going to give the parent all the credit here. The other credit, if we’re going to give it out is he’s getting older, his control is getting better, he may be able to handle that better. But I’ll also tell you, and this also has to be said, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any of these. Right? Regardless of how violent or not violent.


REENA: Games?

LISA: Any video game. Violent video games. Any violent video games. 


REENA: But come on, how realistic is that?


LISA: Well that’s the question, right? And I just want to say it, because it is their recommendation, no violent video games, no violent movies. I totally know where they’re coming from, but the tension again, if it means that your kid’s social life craters.


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: Which is exactly what happened to this guy and how they got started on this road, as a psychologist, I’m going to measure what it means be socially isolated at school, and the psychological harms that we know come with that, against what it means to be engaging in games, that even if they don’t make a kid more violent, can just be morally reprehensible. 


REENA: Right. 


LISA: I mean I think what partly comes in this letter is the parent’s like, I hate these things. Like they’re just horrible and Call of Duty is off the table still, but you know, that’s legit. And so I think that’s where we find ourselves having to sort this out, is what’s the lesser harm here?


REENA: But I think it’s also an important thing, because my son recently asked to play Call of Duty, and I was like absolutely no way not, but you know, he said mom, can we at least try it? Could we try it? And so it’s pretty aggressive, but I don’t see him being violent, I don’t see him using that language, I think he is truly able to know this is a different world, that’s not always the case for everyone. I want to ask you, is there an age where you think absolutely no video games? And an age where you think, okay, we can allow it because they have a little bit more control over their emotions? 


LISA: I do think, you know, there’s ages where we want to certainly minimize video games, just in the name of minimizing screen time. You know, there’s value in kids just having diversity of activity and being physically active. So even if they’re playing benign, goofy video games, we want to keep a lid on that, especially with very young children, just because they should be doing other things, they shouldn’t be plopped down in front of an iPad or a screen all the time. At the same time, if you are a family who has not had a quiet meal out at a restaurant in five years, and you know that you can enjoy a quiet meal and you want to give your kid a video game, like I’m not going to judge you. Like I get that. But I do think, you know the longer you can hold off on the stuff that is uncomfortable, as a parent, the better because we want kids to be older, we want them to have more awareness of what’s real and not real, of you know, this being a fantasy world. But Reena, you said something, I think you implied something I want to ask you more about. Did you watch him Call of Duty? Did you sit down and watch the game as he played it? Did you check it out?


REENA: I did, and the heavy guns and I just, I didn’t even like to stand there, and it just bothered me. But I did watch his behavior, and you know what, here’s the thing. He tried it, it wasn’t like this contraband thing in the house, he wanted to do it because some of his friends were into it, he tried it, he wasn’t really, he’s not like playing it everyday. He plays it when they want to, but he’s not addicted to it, he’s not talking about guns and all the different things, and you know, what? It was an opening for us to sort of talk about that, and we did talk about at the time, the shootings. So it allowed us to have a conversation about why I didn’t like it initially, about how I believe he’s kind of grown up and he can regulate it, and how he understands this is sort of a make-believe world. But he kind of wanted to, you know, play against his friends. Like you said, it was a social thing. So I was okay with that. 


LISA: Alright. There’s so much good parenting there. And I’m just going to pull out and underscore some key pieces. First, the idea that you sat and watched him play. That you actually got the sense of what he was doing, what was involved, it sounds like it definitely confirmed your hesitations, right?


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: That you were like, okay, but I also then think that pivoted to a second thing that is so gorgeous in this parenting that you’re describing that you’ve done, around conversations. Right? That you actually talked about what you say and what it is, and how it lines up against very disturbing true stories in the news. And the goal here, I think, is if a parent allows violent video games, that there is an open line of communication about them, about what the kid is playing, about the content of what this kid is playing, you know what’s actually happening in the video games, and I could see a parent saying, okay, here’s the bargain. You will be allowed to play Fortnite, you may even be allowed to play Call of Duty. I’m going to watch from time to time, and then you’re going to have to talk to me about it. Like we’re going to have to have conversations. 


REENA: That’s great. 


LISA: It can’t be over there. And I think that’s a way to do it. And to do exactly what you did, which is to say, here’s what I don’t like. Or here’s what makes me really uncomfortable about these. That is valuable. And it’s often as good as it gets. Like you may come to the decision that my kid is managing well, it seems to fit his social life, and we can have these conversations, and so we’re going to go with it for now. 


REENA: Okay. I like that. That’s great advice. So Lisa, do violent video games really make kids more violent? 


LISA: Well, we know from the research that they can. But I think the way we want to ask this question is, is the violent video game making your kid more violent? Like that’s the question that parents want to ask. And this boy, at least in the first two attempts, the answer was yes. And this parent did exactly what I would recommend, which is cutting him off. Just saying, this isn’t happening. And I also trust, given how much parenting is described in this letter, that the parent explained exactly why. You can’t play the video games because then you are going after your sisters in ways that are violent and aggressive, so they are gone for a whole. And she exactly, I’m assuming it’s a she in the letter, I don’t know. The parent in this letter, there was a long stretch. She said we tried again a year later. So it wasn’t like a week off and going back at it, like really long chunks of development, which I find very impressive, that this parent gave real time for that lesson to sink in, real time for this boys’ controls to try and improve, second pass, still didn’t work, third pass, working so far. And what I would say is, okay go with it, maybe the violent behavior in the real world problem has been solved, and the social life problem has also been addressed, because now this kid can engage that way, but I would also hope that in addition to having ongoing conversations about, okay, I’m going to come watch you play Fortnite, I’m just kind of curious about what’s going on with it now, I’m curious about what’s going on with Call of Duty, if he ever gets there, and having ongoing conversations, that she would, or the parent would, make it clear, and just to be clear, the day I see you being rough with anyone in the world, we’re going to go back on vacation from these things. 


REENA: Wow. 


LISA: That there’s no harm in, if the parent’s instinct suggests that should happen, saying those words. 


REENA: Wow that’s good. So you’ve got to set the parameters, tell them, if you do X, then you’re going to lose this. 


LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what’s so interesting and wonderful about this letter, is it’s not just the violence controls that this parent has done a good job of bringing in, you know, saying you can’t act this way. It is setting time limits, and managing within those time limits. There’s something subtle in here, I want to call out, that the parent has said to this boy, you’re allowed to play for X amount of time, and it sounds like, from the way the letter is written, that the parent is counting on him to regulate that, to cut himself off and stop, and it sounds like in this third attempt he’s doing it. So that’s another piece I want to bring in, which is if parents, you know, kind of decide that the violent video games are worth the social benefits, and maybe the boy’s handling it in the way your son is, where it’s like he gets it, it’s not interfering with his daily life, he keeps it in its place, the value of saying, okay, you can do it, but you can only do if for so long a day, or so many hours in a week. And then saying, these are the parameters around time, it is your job to hold yourself to these. Because you brought up the word addicted, and absolutely it can happen. That the parent says you can play for 45 minutes, and then an hour and a half later, the parent’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re still going? And then that’s a blowup. So I would absolutely encourage parents to say, I’m going to give you the time limits, and if you can’t observe those without me policing it, you can’t play the game. 


REENA: So the other thing in this letter, where the parent talks about increased knowledge of the different types of guns and their power capabilities, the thing is, this isn’t a game where you’re just shooting down clay pigeons, there are like, very heavy guns that you know. 


LISA: Yeah. 


REENA: It just gives you pause in the wake of school shootings. It’s just hard to talk about this without acknowledging that context of the era we live in right now. Should parents be concerned about them having the knowledge of these different weapons? Is that troubling? 


LISA: I find it troubling. I mean, do you find it troubling?


REENA: I, you know, I think it’s troubling in context of school shootings. It almost triggers something for parents. Right?


LISA: Yeah. 


REENA: But does that translate for kids? Like my son isn’t going crazy about the knowledge of guns and spewing it out and talking to his friends about that. So should I be making a big deal if he isn’t?


LISA: That’s a great way to put it. I kind of think no. I mean I kind of think, watch the games, watch your kid, have the conversations that make the most sense in light of the data that you are collecting between those two observations. But this boy is talking about the games, and this parent is saying the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, combined with hearing the sounds of these games, hearing my son talk about these weapons, you know the parent is having a very understandably hard time with it. And this boy is now 11. He’s probably in the sixth grade. And so I think he is developmentally able where this parent could continue that conversation. They could say, here’s what makes me so uncomfortable, you know, these are really really heavy weapons in the games, and these are the same kinds of weapons that are being used in these horrendous events. And so, I know kiddo, you’re saying that you know it’s not the real world, but I also need you to hear me say, some of that horrible, horrible stuff that you are engaging in for play is actually showing up in the real world. And I need you to understand how awful that truly is. Right? Like that conversation could happen. 


REENA: So, just going over everything you discussed right now, so if your child is showing really aggressive behavior, that’s a sign you’ve got to go cold turkey and just cut them off?


LISA: It is. But here’s the wrinkle, Reena. At your house, right. But you’re also presumably allowing your kid to go to other kids’ houses from time to time, and so then you have the problem, and you have this problem all through development, of things you won’t allow in your house but you really cannot effectively police anywhere else. I mean unless you’re going to call the other parent and be like, my kid is banned, you are now in charge of this. 


REENA: Oh god, and how embarrassing for the kid. 


LISA: Right. Unlikely. So yes I think you should cut the kid off at your own house if there is a problem with violent behavior or being unable to manage limits in terms of time. For the parent who’s like, well what difference does it make if he can go over to the neighbor’s house and play? Here’s what I would say, it makes a difference because over there he knows he’s not supposed to be doing that, and he knows what you are unhappy about, and he knows that you are uncomfortable about it, and that filter is well in place, because he’s not even allowed to do it in his own home. So it’s not ideal, but often, and this is true, this came up in our conversation about pornography. Kids will sometimes look at pornography, they’ll look at things we don’t want them to see, we cannot actually seamlessly prevent that. There’s no way to guarantee your kid won’t see it. But what you want to guarantee is when your kid sees stuff like that, that they are like, oh my parents are not okay with this, this does not fit with our family values, they would not be happy. 


REENA: I just don’t see kids, when it’s banned at home, and they’re doing it somewhere else and the other kids all love it, being like, oh no, mom told me not to do that. Like you’re just, if you don’t speak up and have the conversation with the other parent, like we don’t want them to play this, like you’re powerless. Right?


LISA: You are powerless. But I do think kids hear what their parents say. Even if they go to other homes and do what they’ve been asked not to do. So it’s not a perfect solution. 


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: But I think there’s a part of the kid that is tugging at them, saying you know you’re not allowed to do this at home, and you know you’re not allowed to do this at home because it is so violent and makes my folks so uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it, that doesn’t mean they won’t do it, that doesn’t mean that they won’t want to hang out that house a little bit more, but I think there’s value and, bluntly Reena, it’s often as good as it gets. I mean it may be impossible to totally cut your kid off, but you can cut them off at home. 


REENA: That’s such a good reminder, about kids. You know, you can sound like a broken record and be saying things over and over again, and thinking it’s just not resonating, but hearing you say it does get to the kids. 


LISA: Yeah. They know. And they care. They care what we feel, even if they do the opposite sometimes. 


REENA: So big overview here, I’m hearing you say you’ve really got to monitor kid by kid. There’s no blanket on video games. And opening it up, having a conversation, letting them know what makes you uncomfortable, and why, can really help. 


LISA: Absolutely. And really you’re just weighing that tension of, is this really key to my kid’s social life and is it important for my kid to have a social life? Which the answer is actually yes, and you know, can I tolerate that in light of my own discomfort or concerns I may have? That’s the sort of sticky place that parents have to find their way through. But I love, I mean I love how you described your thinking about it, with your son. And kind of thinking about it and watching him and watching his attitude, and that he’s not intensely engaged in it, he kind of takes it for what it is. He uses it socially but otherwise he can kind of let it go. Like you’re describing a version of the story where like, I get it, I think that makes sense. You know, you don’t love the video games, I don’t love the video games, but you’ve come to a place where, right now, it’s tolerable. 


REENA: I love what you said about, is this critical to my kid’s social life? Because this sort of, in many ways, opens the door to the teenage years, about how you balance things you’re not crazy about, but you know might be important for them socially. 


LISA: Oh yes. Right? Like here we go. That their friends and the company of their friends and spending time with their friends is how they grow as teenagers. It’s such a key part, and one of the ways we think about it developmentally, is they do loosen their ties to us, they need to. Eventually they’re going to leave home, and so as they loosen those ties, they actually have to strengthen ties elsewhere. And it’s wonderful to see kids get with their friends and thrive in that context and discover sides of themselves that don’t get cultivated at home. And it’s also really anxiety-provoking as a parent, because you don’t control it, and you don’t always get to choose how kids are spending their time, and you never get to choose who their friends are, right? So this is, I think you’re exactly right, that kind of move into alright, my kid’s doing something I don’t want them to do to have friends, like and it’s video games for now. It gets us into the reality that parenting teenagers is anxiety-provoking for parents. And there’s no getting around that. And here you go. 


REENA: Thanks for the reminder. 


LISA: You’re welcome. 


REENA: So Lisa what do you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: Well, especially in things like this, where you have to lay down rules, and the rules have to be pretty, you know, real and heavy and observed, my advice would be, propose the rules and then talk with your kid about whether or not they’re realistic. And be open to negotiation. So I’ll give a really good example with regard to Fortnite. A friend of mine wanted to impose very strict time limits, and her son rightly said, but mom, if I’m playing a team game of Fortnite and I’m in the middle of the game, leaving abruptly actually hurts the other players, my friends. 


REENA: Yes this is huge. I didn’t know that until we started. Yeah.


LISA: And so it may sound great in the parent’s head to say, when I tell you it’s done, it’s done, but that may not be realistic. And so they came to an agreement where she would say, this has to be your last round. Like you cannot start another round. And Fortnite goes pretty fast, actually, and so that was an acceptable limit and a logical limit and a fair limit. Not what the parent started with though. So anytime we are needing to lay down the law about things, which we should do, it’s a huge part of being a parent. Sometimes, not anytime, sometimes, there should be room for checking whether that’s realistic, and making adjustments so that you can lay down that law. That would be, I think, a way to go about this.


REENA: Things I never knew 10 years ago I would be thinking about as a parent. But it’s hugely important for their social life. 


LISA: I know. It is, it really is Reena. 


REENA: Well thank you, for guiding us through because there really are some important tips that I am learning, and I think will be valuable to a lot of parents who are picking up gaming. 


LISA: Yep. 


REENA: And so next week Lisa, we’re going to talk about my kid being a late bloomer, and what you can do to help. I’ll see you next week. 


LISA: I’ll see you next week. 


The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.