Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blame Genetics, Not Video Games, For Violent Teenagers

Lately I've been helping college students write essays on a variety of subjects as a part of my freelancing. Most of the assignments are uninteresting busy work --"Explain how you are going to change the world as a student."--but occasionally I get to help a student write an interesting essay.

Earlier this week, someone requested help researching this question. " There is a clear link between violent video games and school shootings, but not all children exposed to these games behave aggressively. What do you think is the difference between the two groups of children?"

There's a lot to unpack here, but I want to answer the question the same way I told my client to answer:  People often accept oversimplified solutions to complicated problems like school shootings. Their need to make sense of the situation overwhelms their ability to look deeper and find the root cause of the violence.

Notice first of all that the question is loaded. "There is a clear link between violent video games and school shootings." Well, not exactly. There are certainly some studies that find an association between violent games and violent behavior. But there are also studies, as I've argued before, showing  that there is no correlation between real world violence statistics and the rising popularity of video games. Other studies still have found that depression in young people is a much better predictor of violent behavior than exposure to video games.

One researcher went a step further to point out, back in 2010, "that depressive symptoms were a strong predictor for youth aggression and rule breaking, and their influence was particularly severe for those who had preexisting antisocial personality traits.

The link between depression and violence gets closest to what I think is most responsible for violent behavior in childhood. Our genetics influence everything about us, from the color of our hair to whom we're attracted to sexually. Indeed according to some research, as much as 45 percent of our behavior can be attributed to genetics. The other 55 percent is due to life experiences and environment.

These studies are particularly revealing because they involved hundreds of pairs of identical twins. The researchers followed identical twins who grew up in the same homes and twins who were separated at birth, and they found that the twins in both groups ended up being 45 percent identical, based on a battery of psychological tests.

Since violent behavior is a symptom of depression, especially in boys, and because there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that depression runs in families, there is a good chance that certain people are predisposed to act out violently. Given these facts, life experiences like playing violent video games may then trigger violent behavior in children with certain genes.

This tends to be a very unpopular answer today, either because it makes people uncomfortable or because they have an ax to grind. Whatever the case may be, factoring genetics into our explanation of violent behavior in childhood means we can't just blame the problem on video game manufacturers, poor parenting or sexism, and yes that last one has actually been suggested.

The problem lies deeper than these superficial explanations; we have to accept the facts, as difficult as that may be, or we'll just continue wandering in circles instead of finding a solution to the problem of violent childhood behavior.

Depression affects approximately 350 million people around the world, and the illness often goes undiagnosed, according to the World Health Organization. So instead of focusing on the popular but inadequate solutions like violent video games, we should do a better job of screening for depression and then properly treating patients who suffer from it.

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