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BYU study finds correlation between drug use, video games

Janelle Vreeland

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The debate over the psychology of video games continues with findings of Brigham Young University study

In the latest issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, a multidisciplinary research publication, a new study links the playing of video games by teenagers with “risk behaviors,” such as drinking and using drugs, as well as poorer relationships with friends and family.

The study, conducted by a group of researchers led by Laura M. Padilla-Walker, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, polled 813 undergraduate students from various institutions.

The results were the same for both genders, although males were shown to play video games far more frequently than females. The students polled were primarily middle-class white college students living outside their parent’s home.

The study concluded that video game use, especially violent ones, was correlated with both drinking and drug use. Those who frequently played such games were likewise more likely to experience poorer quality relationships.

In addition, teenagers who lived at home played video games more than those who lived in a residence hall or apartment.

A similar study, conducted by Paul Fletcher, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, suggests that lessons learned in a virtual environment may later be used to make real-world decisions.

Fletcher told the New Scientist, “I don’t think this is evidence that video games are bad. We just need to be aware that associations formed within the game transfer to the real world – for good or for bad.”

Video games have long been a subject for debate. Numerous groups have accused violent video games, most famously Exidy’s “Death Race” and Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto” series, with providing bad examples for developing teenagers.

However, despite numerous studies performed by various groups, such as the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health, no conclusive link has ever been shown between actions in a video game and actions in real life.

Padilla-Walker cautions against generalizing the findings of the study, which focused on one particular demographic, in a Los Angeles Times article, “While the correlational nature of our data precludes causal inferences, these findings do suggest that video game use may be a possible risk factor for emerging adult development.”

Our Take:

Some studies have shown some correlation between video games and “risk behaviors,” such as alcohol and drug use. However, many of these have not been independently verified, and some, such as the recent one published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, may have been motivated by unscientific beliefs (Brigham Young University, which funded the study, is a Mormon institution which decries everything from drinking coffee to sex a sin).

In addition, though some relationship has been shown, correlation does not imply causation, as any scientist or statistician will tell you. The data in this study, for example, show a relationship between drug use and playing video games, but provide no method for interpreting the data. It could just as easily prove that drug use causes teenagers to play more video games, and not vice versa. 

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