Video Games and their Impact on Child Aggression and Empathy

“Can’t I just play one more hour?”

“But there’s nottttthhhhthinnnng else to do!”

“Chill out, Mom. The game is not that violent.”

There’s no doubt that video games are a part of the plugged-in generation’s lifestyle. But are you aware just how much of an impact video games have? Check out these stats:

REALITY CHECK: Did you know that:

  • 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 play computer, web, portable or console games?
  • More than 90 percent of kids play video games 30 minutes a day though boys spend twice as much time playing than girls.
  • In fact, video gaming is so widespread among American kids that studies show that nearly every teen plays games in some way, regardless of gender, age or economic status.

For some kids games are “everything.” That’s why there’s also growing concerns among parents about video games that range from: making kids more aggressive, developing sedentary lifestyles, squelching cognitive development or academic potential. After all, it’s very easy for kids to fall into the habit of spending too much time in front of those controllers.

The truth is too much video game playing isn’t healthy for anyone and can rob our children from experiencing the great outdoors, reading for pleasure, getting enough exercise, doing their homework, as well as learning to get along with others. But don’t rush to judgment too quickly. Over the last decade video game makers have come a long way and playing some of those games actually benefits our kids’ learning and motor dexterity, and even helps keep them in better shape.

Here are solutions to help you wade through those tough choices and know whether playing that video game is actually aiding or hindering your child’s development.

Parenting Solutions for Kids and Video Games

Know Your Child

For my two cents, I don’t think it’s healthy for any kid to play violent video games. But don’t get me wrong, playing one video game is not going to cause irrevocable damage. Just please know that some children are influenced by aggressive content. If they continue playing violent games they will stress more and become more aggressive and less empathic. Research finds that video games may decrease our kids’ capacity to feel for others:

Video Games May Decrease Empathy

A University of Toronto study with 150 fourth and fifth graders found that those spending the most time playing violent video games are also most likely to agree with statements such as: “People with guns or knives are cool,” and “Parents should tell their kids to fight if they have to.” Those same kids are also more likely to disagree with statements such as, “When I’m mean to someone I generally feel bad about it later,” or “I’m happy when my teacher says my friend did a good job.” Many child experts (myself included) are concerned that violent video game playing may desensitize your child to empathy-or that glorious capacity to feel for another.

Kids who are more sensitive, have an aggressive or hyper temperament, or are predisposed to aggression by witnessing or experiencing it are also more likely to be aggressive after playing certain video games.

A review by the University of Michigan of over 85 studies found that “video games increase aggressive thoughts and angry feelings, aggressive behaviors and decrease helping behavior.”

But you don’t need research to prove that to you. Just monitor your child’s behavior closer. If you notice he becomes more wound up or aggressive and you think it’s due to playing that game, the solution is simple: Take away those controllers and stay abreast of late-breaking research so you can make responsible parenting decisions as to what is best for your child. Be clear as to not only which games are off-limits but how long your kid is allowed to play.

Be Selective As to Video Content

Set clear parameters as to which games you will allow your kids to watch. Ratings established by the Entertainment Software Rating Board are prominently labeled on the outside of each video game box. (By the way, game raters include child development experts, retired school principals, teachers, as well as parents). Teach your kid those ratings so there are no questions or arguments.

Video Game Ratings

EC (Early Childhood-Ages 3+): No inappropriate or objectionable material

E (Everyone Ages 6+): May contain minimal violence, some comic mischief or crude language

T (Teen; Ages 13+) May contain violent content, mild or strong language and suggestive themes

M (Mature-Ages 17+) May include more intense violence or language; mature sexual themes

AO (Adult Only-Ages 18+) May include graphic depiction of sex and violence

Watch the Whole Game

Many games appear mild at the lowest skill level but grow increasing violent as the player’s skill increases. So if the box with the rating is missing, watch what your child is playing all the way through to the end or ask your child to give you a demo. These games can appear deceiving.

One of the most popular-sellers, “Grand Theft Auto” begins as a fast-pace racing game, but as a player moves up in the competition (and later into the game) points are earned for knocking a policeman off his motorcycle and running down a pedestrian. You can also hire a prostitute, have sex with her, then knock her out and get the money back. Yes, such games are rated for adults, but kids say they can gain access to them easily and many parents never watch beyond the first scenes, not realizing how inappropriate is the content of following scenes. And a recent study found that nearly 80 percent of E rated games contain some violence.

Take Time for Friends

UCLA studies find though certain video games can increase kids’ IQ, they do so at the expense of learning crucial social skills. So don’t let video game playing detract from being with friends. You may also want to put limits on game playing when friends come over or restrict video game playing all together. Don’t be surprised that once you set limits for video playing in your home that your kid decides to spend more time at his friend’s house. If the friend’s parents are allowing unlimited video playing, it may be time to speak with them and share your own policy. They just may decide to adopt a one-hour limit as well.

Teach Anger Management

A study of 1254 preteens found that a big reason they play video games is to manage their feelings, including anger and stress. In fact, kids who play violent games are more likely to play to release anger. Make sure your child knows healthy ways to release anger such as exercise, healthier eating, journaling upset feelings, talking to someone about their upset thoughts, deep breathing exercises or meditation. Then encourage your child to use those strategies to get their anger out.

The long and the short on video games is that there needs to be more research to determine the long-range impact on our children. Meanwhile, keep a closer eye on your child’s behavior. And remember, you do pay the electric bill and are the parent. It’s okay to say, “NO!”

When A Parent Should Worry

Here are red flags that may signal that video games are a negative influence:

  • Peer replacement: Uses video games as a substitute for friends or being with kids.
  • Addiction: Replaces other entertainment forms; if restricted from playing, behavior flares up; goes through “video game withdrawals” (all your child wants to do). This is such a concern of the American Psychological Association that members are hotly-debating whether video game addiction should be labeled a mental health disorder.
  • Aggressive: Acts out, becomes more impulsive or aggressive after playing.
  • Less caring: Displays less concern or empathy towards others.
  • Grades wane: Homework battles increase, grades or test scores decrease.
  • Sleepless: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (Beware: quick-fire screen images and aggressive content activates the brain and can keep kids awake).
  • Couch potato: Too sedentary a lifestyle, limiting exercise, gaining weight.
  • Credit card: Your credit card shows unexplained charges. Online gaming networks charge to play; video games are easily purchased online using a parent’s credit card



Dr Borba’s book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions has been released and is now available at

About the Author

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and a recognized expert in parenting, bullying, youth violence, and character development and author of 23 books including her new release, THRIVERS: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. She is a regular NBC contributor who appears regularly on TODAY and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show. She lives in Palm Springs, CA with her husband, and is the mother of three grown sons. Dr. Borba is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


5 Responses to “Video Games and their Impact on Child Aggression and Empathy”

  1. Browsergames Freak says:

    Thanks for this great post 🙂

  2. Justin says:

    Just set up a schedule for playing computer games, kids need to play sometimes. Computer game relieves stress and develop your skills.

    How to Become a Video Game Designer

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Good point – there are definite benefits that these games can provide. I think what it comes down to is knowing your kids, and knowing what they’re playing…and then actively choosing what’s appropriate for them based on their age and maturity level. Thanks Justin.

  3. d_gamer says:

    Try educational games like puzzle games , quiz games and whatnots. While having fun the kids will also learn. And yes, setup a schedule for playing that is the way it should be.

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      Sounds like you’ve had some experience with this… Thanks for stopping by to share some of it with us. 🙂

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