Friday, February 6, 2009

A Dangerous Media Effect

Since I was just arguing media effects with the head of the New Jersey chapter of the Parents Television Council on Culture Wars, I can’t help but comment on what may be a truly dangerous media effect I just ran across. And no, it’s not people becoming more violent, or wanting more sex, or trying to bully each other, starving themselves after reading fashion magazines, or watching anything on TV. It’s the possible effect of atrocious journalism.

The FOX news web page has a link to an AP story about a study on video game use by college students, with the headline reading “STUDY: VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES BAD FOR MENTAL HEALTH.” Check it out here.

The article describes a study published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence. It looked at the sort of people who play a great deal of video games. The researchers report that students who play a great deal of video games are also the ones who may have alcohol problems, use drugs, and have bad personal relationships. The gamers who enjoy the violent games are also the ones to have a lot of sex partners and bad personal relationships. We are told that there is a “clear correlation” between the video gaming habits of these students and the sorry state of their lives.

So this study is proof that video games really cause you to become and alcoholic, a junkie, perhaps a sex addict, and someone who can’t have a healthy relationship, right?


But, of course, going by the AP story, you might conclude exactly that. The way the story is written – and most people are going to get the majority of their science news from the mainstream media rather than reading a dense, jargon-laden academic journal – the average person might conclude that here is a study establishing a clear causality between video game use and behavior.

Except that the study does nothing of the sort. The study finds a correlation, which is NOT the same as causality. A correlation is merely the observation of changes between two variables. From a study like this, we can’t tell if playing video games turned these students into sex-crazed, alcoholic drug users, or if people who like their cheap frat house beer, smoke too much reefer, have sex a lot with different women (most of the problem gamers appear to be men) because they’re loose and licentious (or perhaps they’re just lousy in bed and get dumped after the first roll in the hay) will also play a lot of video games. Maybe if you’re a drunken screw-up to begin with, you might be a high-using videogamer as well.

Again, maybe these people were screw-ups to start with and they turned to video games in their screwed up state.

Of course the problem with this is that media-phobic control freaks like to jump on these stories and get all “active” and “concerned.” For example, we might have a lot of folks at the PTC with a great, big silly grin all over their face right now, writing an Op-ed about the “scientifically proven” danger of video games. Then they’ll be starting campaigns to pass new laws to control video game sales because “the research proves the dangers.” These are the people who are incapable of understanding the nature of correlations in statistics and incapable of grasping why a count of the number of punches thrown in your average Rocky movie is not a proof that Rocky movies cause people to get into fights.

But, nevertheless, these very concerned activists like to get active and pass new laws to control your life and behavior.

And the real culprit in all this is a sloppy reporter!

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