No time for the crime: Excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction

On Sunday February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their debut on US television. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated audience of 73 million people. One of the most quoted consequences associated with this particular show was that between 8pm and 9pm when the show was aired, a number of news reports claimed that there was no reported incidence of juvenile crime across America during the time of the broadcast.  The editor of Newsweek, B.F. Henry, went as far as to claim that “there wasn’t so much as a hubcap stolen” during the hour that The Beatles were on the show.

This apocryphal tale, at the very least, shows the apparent compelling logic in the argument that when an activity is so engrossing it has the capacity to stop people engaging in other types of activity such as crime. Inspired by a speculative blog post on the topic, my friend and research colleague Dr. Mike Sutton failed to disconfirm what Dr. Sutton and I have called the Crime Substitution Hypothesis. We recently published a small paper in the journal Education and Health that examined the extent to which popular youth activity (namely video gaming and social networking) may be having an effect on youth offending and victimization.

Young people’s use of technology (the so called ‘screenagers’ and ‘digital natives’) has increased greatly over the last two decades and a significant proportion of daily time is spent in front of various screen interfaces most notably videogames, mobile phones (e.g., SMS) and the internet (e.g., social networking sites like Bebo, Facebook). These ‘digital natives’ have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television, and are therefore tech-savvy, have no techno-phobia, and very trusting of these new technologies.

One of the most empirically researched areas is in the area of adolescent video gaming. Negative consequences of gaming have included addiction, increased aggression, and a variety of medical consequences, such as repetitive strain injuries, obesity, and photosensitive epilepsy. There is certainly evidence that when taken to excess, videogame playing can in some cases be addictive, especially online videogame playing where the game never pauses or ends, and has the potential to be a 24/7 activity. However, there are many reported benefits that adolescents can get from playing videogames. These can be educational, social and/or therapeutic.

Another positive benefit of playing video games along with activities like social networking may be the capacity to reduce youth crime. The reason why videogames may have implications for crime reduction is their use as ‘distractors’ (such as in the role of pain management). The reasoning is that ‘distractor tasks’ consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. I have noted in a number of my academic papers that the main reasons that videogames make good distractors are because they:

  • Are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e. challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Appear to appeal most to adolescents

For instance, one study reported the case of an eight-year-old boy with neurodermatitis being given a handheld videogame to prevent him from picking at his face. Where previous treatments had failed, the use of the game kept his hands occupied and within two weeks the affected area had healed. A number of studies have demonstrated that videogames can provide cognitive distraction for children undergoing chemotherapy. All these studies have reported that distracted child patients report less nausea after treatment (when compared with control groups), and that playing videogames reduced the amount of painkillers the children needed during treatment. The very reasons why video games may be of benefit therapeutically may also be applied to video games in a crime reduction context (i.e., the playing of video games is so cognitively distracting that that there is little time to do or think about anything else).

Consequently, there is a developing school of thought arguing that peoples’ participation (especially excessive use) in video gaming and social networking may be contributory factors that may partly explain the fall in crime rates in recent years. For instance, the economist Larry Katz was quoted in a 2010 issue of The Economist suggesting that the playing of video games may be playing a role in crime reduction. Katz’ reasoning is simple – keeping people busy keeps them out of trouble. There appears to be some statistical support for such a hypothesis as the decrease in US crime rates appears to show an inverse correlational relationship with increased sales of video game consoles and video games. Clearly this correlational evidence should be treated with caution as it says nothing about causation. However, it does provide a hypothesis that could be the subject of future empirical testing.

Could the rise in video game playing and social networking be a major cause of what criminologists claim is an unfathomable drop in crime, and if not, then why not? Routine Activity Theory predicts that if a substantial numbers of young people are not on the streets either as victims or offenders then overall high volume ‘crime opportunities’ would diminish, resulting in an overall drop in high volume crime rates. We have no idea yet whether what we might call the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ is plausible. Therefore, in our recent paper, Dr. Sutton and I set out some ideas that support it as something possibly worthy of further exploration.

As highlighted above, research suggests some young people are spending many hours playing video games or social networking. Research also suggests that video games can be engrossing, addictive and in some cases compulsive. Additionally, research has failed to establish that violent media is either a necessary or sufficient condition for causing crime. Therefore, taking a Routine Activity Approach, it would seem that an increase in video gaming might feasibly lead to a rise in the illicit market for stolen computers and games consoles. However, there might be fewer thieves to supply it if:

  • Fewer potential offenders are getting addicted to opiates and other drugs, and/or misusing alcohol out of boredom because they have escaped boredom in the real world by entering the more exciting world of cyberspace to play and interact with others.
  • Potential offenders and victims are gaming excessively and/or compulsively checking Facebook and/or other social networking sites.
  • The game players and other ‘netizens’ are playing at home so (a) fewer potential offenders on the streets and fewer potential victims, and (b) houses are occupied for longer and so less susceptible to burglary.
  • Immersion and gaming prowess and reputation may be sufficient substitutes for the same things in the offline (real) world
  • The Internet allows more people to work from home so teleworking may reduce the pool of “available” victims on the street and also ensure fewer homes are empty during the day.

The evidence provided for the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ in our paper was anecdotal and/or correlational in nature but we would argue that this would provide a fruitful avenue for further research. Such research into ‘crime substitution’ and gaming/social networking might involve: (i) measuring time spent gaming and social networking by groups that empirical research predicts are at greater risk of becoming offenders, (ii) conducting ethnographic studies with young people to gauge whether, and if so to what extent, gaming and social networking are used as a substitute for risky activities in the offline (real) world, and do this in relation to both potential offending and victimization, (iii) examining issues of offline and online peer status and how this may impact on consequent behaviour (including criminal activity), and (iv) further examining the correlation between console and game sales – and any data on playing time and type of games – with the general crime trend over the past 20 years.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

De Freitas, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). The convergence of gaming practices with other media forms: what potential for learning? A review of the literature. Learning, Media and Technology, 33, 11-20.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005b). The therapeutic value of videogames. In Goldstein J. & Raessens J. (eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Internet and video-game addiction. In C. Essau (Ed.), Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment and Treatment (pp.231-267).  San Diego: Elselvier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Sutton, M (2010) Routine Activities Theory, the Internet and the 15-Year crime drop. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton. Best Thinking:,9634

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 10, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Computer games, Crime, Cyberpsychology, Games, Internet addiction, Online addictions, Online gaming, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Jesse Schell pointed this out, tentatively, in the keynote speech at GDC ( a few years ago. Very interesting stats but also, as you say, easy to abuse as there is nothing here beyond correlation. It’s a great talk and a fascinating subject – on the one hand video games appear to be (albeit to a lessening degree) obsessed with violence and able to increase aggression in the short term, there are a number of compelling arguments to suggest that, in the long term, they go a long way to process and re-route violent intentions.

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