Screen Violence and Youth Behavior: New Questions

In today’s world, many parents, educators, and policymakers are asking whether video games are good or bad for children and adolescents. Indeed, it’s a topic experts have studied and talked about here on more than one occasion, agreeing, for the most part, that violent video games and media are linked to aggressive and violent behaviors in their players. But according to a new article co-written by School of Family Life professor Sarah Coyne, the question most educators and policy makers are asking—are video games good or bad for children and adolescents?—is much too simplistic. They suggest a different, more “nutrition-based” approach.

What Research Says So Far About Violent Video Games and Their Effects

Dr. Coyne and her co-authors analyzed existing meta-analyses concerning video game aggression and violence. “A large body of evidence reveals that violent media can increase aggression,” she says, citing a census study done by Common Sense Media. “Indeed, the effects of screen violence on increased aggressive behavior have been reviewed and affirmed by numerous major scientific organizations, [and] a comprehensive meta-analysis found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiologic arousal, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior and decreases prosocial behavior (eg, helping others) and empathy. These effects occur for male and female subjects of all ages studied, in both Western and Eastern countries.12

That being said, Dr. Coyne and her co-authors also noted that that are many potential cognitive and social benefits of video game play, and that well-designed video games can be great teachers, since they help players develop sensory processing and cognitive skills. Not all video games are violent, and of course, no risk factor taken alone can cause a child to behave aggressively.

More research is needed to truly explore the negative–and positive–effects of video games on those who play them, they say: large-scale studies of at least 50 000 participants that take into account all known major risk and resilience factors for the development of aggressive and violent behavior tendencies. The study should follow the same large sample of children from an early age through early adulthood, they recommend. They also recommend a similar large-scale, multi-site, multi-year study to further develop and test media exposure interventions to determine what works best, for policy makers and consumers to implement.

A Better Way to Think of Media Exposure?

The authors suggested thinking of media exposure as a diet. It’s important to consume media in moderation, and consumers should make sure to take in more helpful than harmful content. And, the consumer’s age has to be taken into account. In the absence of those large-scale studies, but with the evidence that has been gathered so far, they and other researchers suggest that parents can most effectively help their children and adolescents consume a healthy “diet” of video games and media by actively monitoring their use, and engaging in and conversing about media with their children, rather than strictly restricting media use. Families can also monitor media exposure by implementing simple rules and setting limits to screen time.


Do Superheroes Make Children Better Defenders? Dr. Coyne’s Study Says No.

Who’s your favorite superhero? Batman? Thor? Wonder Woman? In our modern society, we have a variety of caped crusaders to root for, all with varying powers and abilities. However, they do have one trait in common: they are defenders. Our media is inundated with images of these heroes saving people, cities, and countries. Through them, we’re learning to be better defenders, right? A recent study done by School of Family Life professor Dr. Sarah Coyne found that the opposite was true- children who were exposed to superhero media were more likely to become aggressive rather than prosocial.

batman The Study

The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in January 2017, consisted of two interviews each of 240 children ages 3-6.5 and their parents, once at the beginning of the study and another a year later.  Parents were shown images of common superheroes (e.g., Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, X-men) and asked to choose the superhero that their child most identified with and then to rate how much their child identified with that superhero. They were also asked questions regarding their children’s viewing behaviors, and then asked to rate how aggressive their child was. The children were each given a poster with 10 popular male and female superheroes (e.g., Spiderman, Ironman, Captain America, Thor, Superman, Storm) and were asked to identity their favorite superhero. They were then asked to explain why they liked this particular superhero the best. Children could also identify a superhero not on the poster if they liked. The children were also observed in a lab session.

Of the parents surveyed, only 28% responded that superheroes positively influenced their children. One mother backed up her belief by stating “They can be good role models because they are defending the right and the defenseless.” Contrast this with a different mother who said: “I am not a fan of superheroes because although they are supposed to support and defend ‘good,’ they tend to promote fighting and violence . . . I don’t want to promote superhero or superhero play at home because it tends to lead my children to violence. I don’t want them to act out violence and aggression as a way to entertain themselves.” She was part of the 12% of parents who believed that superheroes negatively influenced their kids. Of this group, 66% cited violence as their paramount concern. The largest group of parents, 60%, had largely indifferent or mixed thoughts on superhero media, one mother saying: “I like the positive aspects of superheroes, helping people, etc., but think they are depicted too violently for children.”

Of the children, 20% of them cited violent action as the admired trait. A five-year-old boy said: “He’s big and can punch.” A four-year-old boy selected Captain America as his favorite superhero “because he can kill.”

The Results 7UAS9TK8AF

“Preschoolers who were highly engaged with superheroes were more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive 1 year later,” said Dr. Coyne, “even after controlling for initial levels of physical and relational aggression and their exposure to other aggressive media. Although superhero programs contain high amounts of prosocial behavior and defending behaviors, preschool boys’ and girls’ engagement with superheroes was not related to increased frequency of these behaviors across time.” Her findings corroborate past research on the subject.

She says: “I hope parents [will] be interested in these results. Many parents specifically said they liked the superhero culture because it taught their children to be better defenders….but this wasn’t the case in our study. They were actually more aggressive!” The researcher hopes that parents will limit their preschoolers’ exposure to superhero media and that they will discuss the characters with their children.

This year, Dr. Coyne will conduct a follow up study with the same children, now nearly ten years old. She will be researching “things like the effect of the superhero culture on the development of the muscular ideal.”

Do you think superheroes are a good influence?

Social Media Comparisons and Motherhood: All Too Common

If you compare yourself with others while on social media, you are not alone; such comparisons are fairly common. But if you’re a mother making those comparisons,the likelihood that you’ll feel worse as a result of them is increased, according to a recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior, and the number of people affected by your comparisons is potentially greater. School of Family Life Professor Sarah Coyne examined the connection between making social comparisons on social networking sites with a mothers’ parenting, mental health, and romantic relationship outcomes. Results concluded that mothers making social media comparisons are affected in their parenting, mental health, and romantic relationships.

Coyne, Sarah
Sarah Coyne

Coyne and her associates, Brandon T. McDaniel and Laura A. Stockdale, asked 721 mothers social media use, parenting behaviors, and health outcomes, for the iMom Project.  Most of them were caucasian, had a college degree, and one or two children, with their youngest or only child being about 1 1/2 years old. Most of them were middle-class, married, heterosexual. Coyne’s research acknowledged that people post their idealized life and best self on social media. “If people compare others’ ‘best selves’ conveyed through social media to their own ‘normal selves’ or ‘worst selves’ this may result in increased negative social comparisons and decreased overall mental health and well-being,”she says.

“Even when difficult parts of parenting are presented,” she continues, “many parents laugh it off online or portray themselves as cool under pressure. Rarely, do we see the true face of parenting online, where parents present the frustrations, exhaustion, self-doubt, and pressure combined with the joy that exists in a typical parenting context. They may wonder why parenting is so easy for others, when it feels so difficult to them. These feelings may increase a sense of role overload…, parental stress…, higher levels of depression…, lower feelings of support, and less positive perceptions of the coparenting relationship.”

Feeling Content in a Comparing World

With this in mind, Coyne et al. caution others to “focus on developing a positive view of self as a mother as opposed to focusing on comparing one’s own self with the many idealized images and portrayals of mothers online. [This] may be helpful in mitigating the negative impact of social comparisons on social networking sites.” The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at BYU provides many resources to support mothers in those kinds of efforts, from posts and publications on parenting, single parenting, marriage, and relationships, as well as publications and events on those topics, and places to spend family time, like the Museum of Peoples and Cultures


Video Games Can Make Brothers Cooperate Better: A Study

It can easily be argued that video games will never go away. Gamers generated $630 million in revenues last year in the U.S.  and will generate $99.6 billion in revenues worldwide this year, according to the Global Games Market Report. While this may be to the chagrin of some parents, to more and more of them, it is a part of life. Siblings playing video games together can be a cause of contention that they would bemoan. However, a recent study shows that, sometimes, playing video games together can be a positive thing.


The study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, surveyed over 500 teens about the content of the video games they played, how long they engaged in them, how often they played them with a sibling, and the quality of their relationships with their sibling. Playing video games with a sibling was associated with higher levels of sibling affection for both boys and girls, but, surprisingly, brothers playing violent video games had less conflict in their relationship.   Sarah Coyne, the primary author of the study and a faculty member in BYU’s School of Family Life, theorizes that this is based on the collaborative nature of some of those kinds of games (Halo’s team mode, for example). In these games, the siblings face off against a common enemy, which breeds cooperation.

This isn’t the first study to look at the ways in which video games affect different relationships, or to document the kinds of things that encourage cooperation between siblings. It is one, however, that shows that “playing video games together may be one way that siblings share time and experiences, and strengthen sibling bonds.” It was motivated in part for Dr. Coyne’s observations of her five younger siblings playing video games together as they grew up. Coyne continues to research video games and the effects they induce; currently, she is studying the brains of those addicted to gaming and those who aren’t using fMRI data.

How do Video Games Affect Your Relationships with Your Siblings?