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BYU Hinckley lecture: Science is clear, violent video games cause aggression

PROVO — American teenagers hate Brad Bushman. "They hate me so bad," Bushman told a BYU audience Thursday night.

The researcher's daughter says he gets "fan mail," an ironic euphemism for the hate mail he receives.

"People who think video games cause violence should be shot," one teen wrote in a message to the Ohio State University professor.

Wearing a tan corduroy jacket and a salt-and-pepper beard, Bushman appeared affable enough Thursday night as he delivered the 10th annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture at BYU's Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.

Bushman has studied violent media for 25 years and published more than 150 papers. That research has been cited so many times — 21,000 — that Google Scholar lists him as the second most-cited communications scholar in America.

On Thursday night, he laid out his scholarly review of 381 studies — with more than 130,000 participants — that looked at violent video game effects.

Based on that science, he said, "Playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, emotional arousal and aggression." They also make people "numb to the pain and suffering of others."

"All these effects are massive and statistically significant," Bushman added.

He said the largest effects found in the science are in the area that prove violent video games lead to increased aggressive behavior. There are 140 studies with more than 68,000 participants that establish that correlation.

"People who say there aren't enough studies on violent video games don’t know what they are talking about," Bushman said. "There is little margin of error, and the findings are so statistically significant that there is no question that violent video games affect behavior."

The Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture series is part of the endowed chair in social work and social sciences in her name at BYU. Each year, the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences invites a major national researcher with expertise in family issues to speak.

All five of the late Hinckleys' children attended the lecture. Past lectures can be found on YouTube and BYU's website.

Bushman described studies in which the participants randomly selected to play violent video games were more aggressive, in once case blasting noise through headphones at a competitor in a different city, than those who watched them play or who played neutral or pro-social games. Other studies showed violent video game players to be slower to help someone injured in a staged fight in a room next door.

Bushman said many Americans don’t accept what he described as established science for several reasons, including denial in the media industry, distaste for being told what to do, third-person effect, fallacious reasoning and cognitive dissonance.

An example of fallacious reasoning is something Bushman often hears from teens: "I've played violent video games my whole life and I never murdered anyone" or, "I never shot up a school."

This tests Bushman's patience. "Big deal," he said. "Nobody ever murders," relatively speaking. Just .1 percent of the "Big Eight" violent crimes tracked by the FBI are murders. School shootings are far rarer than that.

The real question, he said, is how exposure to violence affects how children treats parents, siblings, friends and women. A 15-year longitudinal study by a Bushman colleague looked at the impact of violent television on children ages 8 to 11. Fifteen years later, those in the study whose favorite shows as children were violent were far more likely to push, grab or shove their spouses.

Much of what leads to aggression and violence in American culture is difficult for a parent to address, such as low IQ, poverty and drug and alcohol addiction. Bushman said he is passionate about violent video game research because he wants to protect children.

"We don't let our kids smoke cigarettes, drink beer or play with guns," he said during the question-and-answer session after his presentation. "Let's protect our children. Let's make sure they don't consume age-inappropriate media."

One reason comes from a new study that hasn't yet been published. In it, researchers found that games like Grand Theft Auto encourage players to practice no self-control. The violent video game players in the study ate three times more than the other study participants.

The researchers also awarded raffle tickets to players for correct answers on a test. Each ticket increased the chance of winning the iPad in the raffle. The researchers gave the players an envelope full of tickets and told the players to take out how many they had earned. Those who had played violent video games took eight times more tickets than other participants.

"Violent video games discourage self-control," Bushman said. "The top two contributing factors to success in life are intelligence and self-control."

Bushman's message, rooted in science, is aimed at parents, and again, many teens don't like it.

"Violent media is something we can do something about," he said. He does just that in his own home. The television has a password, he said. The computers have passwords. There are no screens in the children's rooms. His children, a 19-year-old daughter and boys who are 17 and 14, have iPads, but must use them in rooms with open doors and must hand them over to their parents at night.

"They hate me, too," Bushman said with a smile, "just like every other teenager in America."