New Study Blames "Excessive Gaming" For Guns In School

Are video games to blame for kids bringing guns to school? The answer is “yes,” according to a new study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, but there are some major caveats to go along with the conclusion of researchers.

Ofir Turel, one of the study’s authors and a a professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, told the website PsyPost that he was “intrigued by the question whether videogames can be, at least to some extent, a culprit [in school shootings], in that they help imprinting very aggressive and delusional mindsets, in which gun carrying everywhere is the norm.”

So, Turel looked at two social science surveys of some 50,000 teenagers conducted between 2012 and 2017 to look at how many hours a week they played video games and whether there was a correlation between high rates of gaming and bringing a gun to school. According to the surveys, about 1.5% of students surveyed, reported bringing a gun to school at least once during the month before they participated in the survey.

“The key message is that videogames can be associated with carrying guns to school, but only in teenagers who play videogames rather excessively (over 5-6 hours/day). In contrast, video gaming is protective against gun carrying behaviors in teenagers who play video games for less than 4.93 hours/day. As such, moral panic over normal video gaming (in my data, up to 4.93 hours/day) is largely unsubstantiated,” Turel told PsyPost.

So, as long as your kid plays less than five hours of video games a day, they’re safe… unless they don’t play any video games at all. That’s right. Turel’s research shows that not only are kids who play a lot of video games more likely to bring a gun to school, kids who don’t game at all are a higher risk as well.

“Specifically, I found that not playing video games was an equal risk factor to playing over 5.71 hours per day, for gun carrying to school. That is, playing videogames between 0.07 hours/day to 4.93/hours a day, has sheltered teenagers from gun carrying behaviors — it kept them busy and off the streets. In contrast, not playing video games, or playing for over 4.97 hours/day has elevate the risk for gun carrying to school.”

“The findings also imply that legislators and governments should not necessarily try to restrict video gaming time or adolescent access to even violent video games because (1) general video gaming associations with gun-related behaviors are small, and (2) at low levels of general gaming time such activities can be useful and shelter adolescents from other, undesirable behaviors.”

I don’t have an issue with Turel’s takeaway that trying to legislate screen time for teen gamers isn’t likely to do much, but I have some deeper questions about the study itself. Keep in mind that, out of 50,000+ adolescents surveyed, only about 800 reported bringing a gun to school, and we have no real way of knowing how accurate that number actually is.

We do know that Turel wasn’t actually able to measure how many of those 800 actually used a firearm, but that number would likely be far lower. The researcher also wasn’t able to obtain information about the type of video games that these “excessive gamers” were playing, so he simply assumed that they were violent first-person shooters. Is it possible that someone playing 8 hours a day of Call of Duty might become desensitized to violence? Sure, but what if the teen is obsessed with Animal Crossing or Minecraft instead?

Turel also doesn’t explain why non-gamers would be just as likely to carry a gun to school as “excessive gamers.” According to Turel’s theory, “at some level of gaming time (because most popular games adolescents play include violent aspects), the assumed imprinting of aggressive behaviors overpowers the positive displacement force, and this can trivialize and naturalize gun-carrying behaviors, and ultimately increase motivation to obtain and carry guns.”

If that’s the case, what’s the explanation for kids who don’t play video games carrying guns to school at roughly the same rate as those who play video games for five hours or more a day? It seems to me that if Turel’s data is accurate, what he’s found is that adolescents who report bringing a gun to school are simply outliers, which makes sense. They’re not like most kids, both in terms of the amount of video games they play and in the fact that they’ve brought a gun to school.

Rather than blaming excessive gaming (or no gaming at all) as the reason behind the gun-carrying, it might make more sense to view both the illegal gun carrying and the screen time (or lack thereof) as evidence of a deeper issue instead of looking at the two behaviors through a lens of cause and effect. Are these examples of adolescents who’ve withdrawn from their family and peers? Are rates of depression higher among this small group of students? Do they get in more trouble at school? Are they more likely to have trouble at home?

There are a number of important questions that could be asked to get a better idea of what might be driving this behavior, but Turel’s study focuses exclusively on the issue of video games and violent behavior. His results don’t tell us much at all about why a small number of students report that they’ve brought a gun to their school, only that some of them play a lot of video games while others play almost none at all.