New brain research reveals a desensitizing effect of media violence

Video game effects

When I was a kid, I thought one of the meanest things a parent could do was to wake me up in the morning by turning on my bedroom light. My bedroom light always seemed so much brighter first thing in the morning—it hurt to even open my eyes. But, after a few minutes, my eyes seemed to adjust, and I would eventually roll out of bed.

Just as our eyes at first might be startled by a bright light, and then become accustomed to the light, research shows that our brains become accustomed to media content that we at first found to be objectionable.

In a study involving 13 adolescents who were categorized as avid gamers of either “nonviolent” or “violent” video games, participants played both types of games while undergoing an MRI scan. The study found that while playing the violent game, the regions of the brain associated with emotional responses were more active among avid “nonviolent gamers,” and were suppressed among “violent” games. In other words, the brains of “violent” gamers were no longer stimulated when they were asked to play a violent video game—their brains had become desensitized to the violent content. The researchers said: “Seeing violent images should typically provoke emotions such as fear and disgust” and that the study’s results “may be an indication of a long-term desensitization effect from prior violent game exposure.”

Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to video games. This research also doesn’t necessarily mean that avid users of violent video games wouldn’t respond with fear and disgust in response to real-life violence. But, I think it does mean that if children’s responses to media have at least a chance to transfer to their responses to real-life situations, then we as parents should pay a bit more attention to the content of the video games our children are playing.

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