Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Parenting Pointers: Video Games, Abuse, and Mass Homicides

 What is the relationship between exposure to bullying, childhood trauma and violence in video games among perpetrators of mass homicides?

In his latest research, Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, examined the question in a co-authored study published in the Journal of Mass Violence Research (Nov. 28, 2021).


Ferguson is one of the nation’s foremost experts in video game violence and its impact on violence in society. The co-author is Miranda Sanchez ’20, who majored in psychology and was a former student of Ferguson’s. The study project is the result of her senior thesis.


The results of the new study show that perpetrators of mass homicide had experienced more abuse than other individuals, but not bullying. In addition, those perpetrators had played fewer violent video games than had matched samples. Further, the results seem to match previous data on mass homicide perpetrators.


“In short, we found no differences in exposure to bullying, they did experience more abuse in their childhood families and, perhaps most interesting, they played fewer​ violent video games than other men,” Ferguson said.


Perpetrators of mass homicides have often been believed to have experienced certain events in their childhoods that may have led to their crimes. Among the issues that were considered in this study were childhood trauma, which included abuse history, and history of childhood bullying. Another issue that was examined was whether they played violent video games as a child. Exposure to these variables were compared between a sample of 169 male firearm mass homicide perpetrators and preexisting research samples of the same age and gender who had not committed mass murders.


Analyses were preregistered. Hypotheses that were tested included whether mass homicide perpetrators had experienced more childhood abuse, more childhood bullying or played more violent video games compared to matched samples.


Ferguson’s conclusion: The frequency of mass homicides appears unlikely to abate in the near future. Much of the discussion around such acts focuses on policy issues related to gun control and mental health. While he believes these are worthwhile, a “fuller understanding of etiological factors involved in the developmental pathway toward mass homicide can also be worthwhile.”

I had a chance to learn more in this interview.

Why is it important to study potential links between certain background factors and people who commit mass homicides?

Policy makers are often trying to decide what kinds of policy, if any, may help deter or prevent mass homicides in the future. Some of this ends up in a scrabble over things like gun control, whereas on other issues we may see wide agreement about the need for better mental health care, yet little actual movement. But if we end up focusing on the wrong issues we can distract ourselves from directions that may be more positive. One of the main issues is, of course, video games which often come up when a perpetrator is a young male (though rarely if the perpetrator is older or, more rarely, female). I can distinctly remember how distracted policy makers became after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting with the issue of video games, though it turned out that individual mainly played the non-violent game Dance, Dance Revolution.
What findings do you think seem counterintuitive to the way some people might think?
People tend to have difficulty letting go of what is intuitively​ true for them, though this can often stem from unfamiliarity or moral repugnance rather than anything rational. For a lot of older adults action video games are unfamiliar and unliked. The more violent ones can tickle our desire to be morally outraged at stuff. Then we can kind of say, "Well that thing looks ugly to me so it just has to be bad." When we get to that point we can be really resistant even to a wealth of data suggesting that our assumption is wrong. Of course, we can look back through history and see that older adults have thought this about a wide range of things we now regard as harmless...rock and roll music, comic books, the radio, even Greek plays.

What implications does the research have for families?
It will probably come as no surprise that exposure to abuse or neglect in families was associated with mass homicide. Naturally, the vast majority of such child victims don't go on to commit horrible acts of violence, and not every person who commits an act of violence comes from a bad family. But strengthening families does appear to be one promising avenue for policy making, and this would lead to a host of positive outcomes, not just on this issue. Of course, it's also a difficult issue as politicians can't merely wave a magic wand and make every parent wonderful, and any policy would have to be both evidence-based and non-intrusive. By contrast we may find ourselves pouring a lot of money into programs that don't really work very well such as anti-bullying programs because they are trendy and people want to see themselves as doing something. But I think for families the main thing I think is to communicate to your child that you love and value them, whatever else you do or do not do. That's always the best gift you can give to your child.


About Stetson University

Founded in 1883, Stetson University is the oldest private university in Central Florida. Stetson focuses on intense learning experiences in a supportive community that allows students to develop their voice in a connected, inclusive environment. Stetson University ranks No. 4 on U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 list of Best Regional Universities (South), and has been recognized as one of The Princeton Review’s 386 Best Colleges, 2021 edition. Stay connected with Stetson on social media.

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