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Violence tests on kids "should never happen" - Byron

Review author calls for "new culture of responsibility" to protect the young

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Having studied the desktop mountains of research into the effect of violent games on children, Dr Tanya Byron has admitted the "jury is still out" on potential risks, but that the type of testing required to investigate it fully would be "ludicrous, unethical" and "should never happen".

Instead, the author of the Byron Review into children's exposure to digital media believes that her report ushers in a "new culture of responsibility for everybody", where parental understanding of games content, fuelled by transparent classification, is the best solution for keeping kids safe from inappropriate content.

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz last Friday, the child psychologist picked by Gordon Brown to investigate gaming explained that the body of research into the effects of playing violent video games is split down the middle.

"The research is highly contested, incredibly polarised," she said. "You've got the researchers in the States saying, yes, we can prove from studies that short-term affects on aggressive behaviour follow from playing these games, and therefore we can conclude they cause problems.

"Then, in the UK and Europe, they take an ethnographic approach, saying, hold on a second, lab studies aren't the real world, and generalisations from short-terms effect to long-term effects are a pretty big stretch."

But she added that the experimentation required fully to test out the proposition made it an obvious non-starter:

"What you'd need to do to really answer this question is take a load of kids at a really young age, stick them in front of loads of inappropriate games that are for adults and older kids, and let them play them over a sustained period of time, and controlling all other lifestyle factors, then seeing what happens.

"That's ludicrous, it's unethical, it should never happen. The methodology that is needed you just couldn't do."

As a child psychologist, however, she explained that her own view was simply that neurologically impressionable kids should be kept clear of mature content.

"There is very, very new research that looks at how children learn at a neural level. Young children respond to actions," she explained. "Action-related experiences can be important in the laying down, at a neural level, of the way we behave.

"In young children the neural networks are still connecting up, never mind connecting to other bits of the brain, and you put all that together. To me the most sensible and rational conclusion is, don't put something in front of a brain that at a neural level might be affected, and at a cortex level cannot differentiate and make decisions about that content in a way that's going to be helpful for them."

In her Review, Byron argues in favour of implementing a statutory BBFC '12-plus' rating for games, as below that age the frontal cortex, "which mediates experience and behaviour", is still in development.

Despite the inconclusiveness of the available research, however, Byron maintained that age-appropriate gaming should be a fun and healthy part of children's - and a family's - "media diet":

"I'm really enthusiastic about games, I play loads of them with my children, and I've also recommended to the government that they look at the education benefits of gaming, because it's a way of engaging children in learning."

Part two of the interview with Dr Byron can be viewed here, with Part one available here.

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Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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