Moving to Learn

Neuroscience of Video Game Violence – Cells That Fire Together, Wire Together

Every parent who has a child with an obsession or addiction to video games, is “on alert” following the recent family shooting in New Mexico where a 15 year old avid video gamer shot and killed his parents and three siblings. Many parents are reeling in shock, trying to come to terms with the recent rise in shooters who are gamers, and are asking the hard question “Do violent video games cause aggression”, and more importantly, “Is my family at risk? ”. At this time, looking to brain science and research is essential in order to determine a path toward safety and wellbeing, of children and their parents. This article is designed to highlight brain science and research to explain what happens to the developing brain when it is exposed to prolonged violent media content. This article also highlights a conjoin issue regarding video game play, child neglect. Video game overuse or addiction is not the problem in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something more pervasive and threatening. We have devolved to be a society addicted to technology, and as a result, are neglecting our children. The results are horrific.

Infants are born with a network of millions of neurons, and brain growth triples in size in the first two years of life. The job of the brain is to increase efficiency through “pruning” of neurons that are not used. This pruning of neurons occurs in response to environmental stimuli. In essence, early brain development is you are what you do. Infants and toddlers who grow up in enriched environments exposed to critical factors that enhance development and learning (movement, touch, human connection nature), have a wide diversity of neuronal connections to all areas of their brains. These children achieve optimal physical, mental, social and academic performance, and will be the future leaders of the world. Infants, toddlers and children who are deprived of these critical factors for development and learning, have brain development that is significantly altered. The brains of children deprived of movement, touch, human connection, and nature, e.g. the video gamers, have significant pruning to the frontal cortex, which isn’t required for basic stimulus/response video game play. The brains of children who are neglected, also prune tracks to frontal cortex.

For more information on the impact of technology on infant brain development, watch Dr. Dimitri Christakis pediatric researcher on TED Talks Click Here.

The frontal cortex is what separates humans from lower life forms, and is responsible for executive functions such as empathy, understanding consequences of actions, and seeing the big picture. The frontal cortex is also involved in attention and being able to control impulses. When children play excessive video games, over 4-5 hours per day, Gary Small a neuroscientist found the brain was permanently pruning neuronal tracks to the frontal cortex. Of interesting note, during early attachment formation between parent and child, the right orbital frontal cortex lights up like a beacon. Children and youth who have prolonged exposure to video games, and are deprived of parental attention, have consequent significant pruning to their frontal cortex.

Another brain development principle at play with video games is that neurons that fire together wire together e.g. violent video games hard wire the brain for violence. We’ve known since 1949 that when cells are simultaneously activated, such as what happens during prolonged exposure to violence during video game play, it leads to a pronounced increase in synaptic strength. Hebb’s theory specifically states:

Let us assume that the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity (or “trace”) tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability.… When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.

Dr. Christakis reports that infants are born a full complement of neurons, so it’s not the number of neurons that increase, it’s the synaptic connections. These synapses form based on early experiences. Babies are born with 2500 synapses, and by age 3 have 15,000, and then over time, these synapses are pruned based on external stimulation. Too much, or alternatively too little stimulation, can result in pruning of synaptic connections. Chaotic or violent stimulation found in video games, cartoons, movies, and television, and…”educational” apps, overstimulate the brain. This type of stimulation is so phrenic and fast, there simply is not enough time for transmission to the brain’s frontal cortex, and as a result, the brain interprets frontal cortex isn’t needed, and consequent pruning to frontal cortex is the result. Early exposure to chaotic or violent stimulation has obvious, more disastrous consequences. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatric have issued warnings to not exposed infants aged 0-2 to ANY technology, not even passive TV watching (75% of homes have the TV on all day, and 25% of infants in this age group have a TV in their bedroom).

Hebb’s theory is therefore incredibly important to reflect on in this time of early exposure to high speed chaotic technologies, especially violent video games. As synapses are rapidly forming in young children, pairing frequent, long duration, chaotic high speed stimuli exposure with violent content in the early years, can be a deadly combination. In the past two weeks society has witnessed two mass shootings by youth who have been exposed to long duration use of violent video games. One question for researchers to ask would be “How early was violent media exposure introduced to the child, and what where the durations of early usage?” Historically the media has reported that all shooters are gamers. Social learning theory states that children who play social games demonstrate social characteristics, and children who play antisocial games become antisocial. Science has just explained why this is fact.

Dr. Andrew Doan, neuroscientist, ophthalmologist and author of “Hooked on Games” explains that similar to “lazy eye” where the brain shuts down the visual system linked to the lazy eye, excessive video game exposure in childhood may result in a “lazy brain syndrome”, where certain areas of the brain shut down due to lack of essential sensory input needed to form a healthy mind. Known in medical circles as ADD or attention deficit disorder, lazy brain syndrome is rampant in today’s technology obsessed society. (Rowan comments “Video game overuse also results in deprivation of movement, which is known in medical circles as ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”).

Children are not mentally ill, society makes them that way. Parents, teachers, caregivers, bullies and even some friends, are all contributing factors in the now 20% of Canadian children diagnosed as mentally ill. The recent trend (only in in North America) to diagnose and medicate children with dangerous psychotropic medications, is really a diversion from blaming society for what can only be termed as “child neglect”. Children who overuse video games are neglected by their parents, and children who are neglected by their parents, overuse video games. Families and many schools have turned away from the real needs of the child, (movement, touch, human connection and nature), and conveniently encouraged device use. In the absence of attention and care from a parent or teacher, children will turn to devices as a default. Predictable, award-based, and always there for them, technology has replaced to a large degree, the need for life sustaining human connection and touch. As neglect increases, tracks to the frontal cortex decrease, and the child or youth is now presenting with mental illness. Anatomically speaking, “decerebrate” is really a much more correct term.

There is a third factor that comes into play when considering why some children resort to violence and/or suicide, and become shooters. Video game play combine with parental neglect, are resulting in a very disturbed child. Conveniently diagnosing disturbed children with “mental illness”, has resulted in an alarming increased in use of psychotropic medications, a quick but often lethal “fix”. Toxic effects of psychotropic medications are violence and/or suicidal behavior. Combine video games, parental neglect, and now toxic psychotropic medications, and we have a better and more realistic understanding of the shooter problem. Add guns in the house, and society now has a shooter in the making. Parents who disconnect from their children, due to their own unresolved issues and addictions, are depriving their children of life sustaining human connection. In the absence of parental attention and healthy attachment, children default to attaching to devices. Understanding the science behind video game overuse and attachment deprivation, will lead society closer to understanding how to reverse these worrisome trends. Video game use is not the problem, profound and universal child neglect is. The propensity to label child behaviors associated with child neglect – mental illness, leads to diagnosis and psychotropic overuse. Add guns in the house, and we have shooters to contend with. Until society accepts this universally ignored truth, that North American children are being horribly neglected, the sustainability of a whole generation of children in is peril.

Where to go from here? Each person needs to take responsibility for their self, so the buck stops here, with you the reader. Asking yourself the hard questions regarding your own personal use of technology is imperative prior to pointing the finger at partners or children. Parents might also want to ask themselves how much quality time they spend with their children, are they available to their children, do they encourage high technology usage by modeling it them self? Research demonstrates child technology usage patterns follow that of the parents, and therefore high usage of technology by parents encourages high usage in children. Are parents offering children healthy alternatives to technology use, such as reading books, walking the dog, going swimming, or to the park? Does your family prepare and eat dinner together, at a table, the epic entre for family conversation? Do parents allow use of technologies in the car, another prime area for connection and communication? How many times does your child have to ask you to come and play with them, read to them, sing them to sleep, listen to their stories, or even just look at them, before they just give up, and grab the nearest device?

Teachers need to ask themselves some pretty hard questions too. Is the device actually teaching, or is it just entertaining children? Can you do it better than the device? Is there any research evidence that shows a device can teach a child anything? To what degree are devices replacing precious time that could be used for enhancing literacy (teaching reading is on the decline, and teaching printing is practically non-existent) or providing the child with essential human connection? In the absence of a teacher, can a child learn using a device? How many of you remember a favorite teacher…was he/she using a device?

These are hard questions, but this is where we start, with ourselves. So whether you are at home or work, turn off the computer and seek out a co-worker, friend, or family member and offer them a smile, kind word, and your undivided attention. Suggest you go outside and shoot some “b’s”, take a brisk walk, or lye on the grass and ponder the clouds. Buy a cheap basketball hoop and nerf ball for your office, home or classroom, or maybe a foam Frisbee, get moving! Decide on something healthy for dinner tonite, and discuss with your family how you can make it a “team” affair. Put all the technology in a basket, or maybe a locked filing cabinet during dinner prep, eat, and clean up…every night! Your children will love you for this rule. Every child should believe that without them, their family (or classroom) would fall apart, so give everyone a job to do every day and thank them for it! Take up star gazing and night time walks around the block. Play more music, dance, and get down right silly with your friends, co-workers and family. Play is an essential component for physical and mental health, and has been proven to make you more creative, relaxed, and happy. Get excited…go a bit crazy! Start now, with one small change in your life to exclude technology and include your children, family and friends. Download the free Ten Steps To Disconnect Your Children From Technology to get yourself started. Disconnect to reconnect. You can do it.

This article was written by Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist, visionary, and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children. Cris is offering a three day workshop intensive for educators and health professionals in Vancouver, BC on Feb. 18-20, 2013 at the Sutton Place Hotel, and is kicking off the Foundation Series Workshops with a parent evening information session Disconnect to Reconnect on Feb. 17. You can find out more about these popular workshops and registration information on the Zone’in website, or email Cris at Cris will also be speaking in Winnipeg on March 17-20, and in San Francisco on April 14-17, 2013. Cris’s book is available on, and her confidence and skill building game Unplug’in is available on her website.

Cris Rowen

Cris Rowan, BScOT, BScBi, SIPT

Cris Rowan is a biologist, pediatric occupational therapist and sensory specialist with expertise in the impact of technology on child development, behaviour and learning. Having worked in school settings for over 3 decades, Cris is committed to improving student health while also easing the job of learning for children. Cris is a well-known international speaker and author to teachers, parents and therapists globally on topics of sensory integration, learning, attention, fine motor skills and the impact of media content including video games, social media and pornography on children’s brain and body development. Cris has a BSc’s both in Occupational Therapy and in Biology, is a SIPT certified sensory specialist, and has Approved Provider Status for CEU provision with the American Occupational Therapy Association. Over the past 3 decades, Cris has provided over 350 keynotes and workshops, writes monthly articles for her blog Moving to Learn, publishes the monthly Child Development Series Newsletter, and is designer and creator of Reconnect Webinars which offer research evidenced information for teens, parents, teachers and clinicians to manage balanced between screens and healthy activities. Cris is member of the Screens in Schools committee with Fairplay for Kids, member of the Institute for Digital Media and Child Development and sits on the Board of Directors for the Global Alliance for Brain and Heart Health. Cris has two adult children, Matt and Katie who grew up without screens.

Cris can be reached at Reconnect Webinars offers a free, 5.5-hour CCAP accredited Screenbuster Program training webinar for teens which qualifies them to perform Tech Talks for their peers. The Screenbuster Program requires one counsellor, teacher or principal to complete the 3-day Balanced Technology Management certification CEU provided course in order to adequately supervise the teens.

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you for the great article. It explains from a brain/behavior perspective what most therapists know intuitively. It is written in a way that parents can understand. I will be sharing this article with the other therapists I work with and hopefully they will share this with the parents of the children with whom they work.

    1. Hi Sue,

      You’re very welcome. I find that parents do not have the information they need to make healthy choices regarding technology use for their children. As health providers, I believe we need to be educated on the topic of the impact of technology on children, so we can pass this onto the parents of the children we are seeing. I also think as health providers, we should be doing routine technology screening for our clients, as so many of the developmental and behavioural issues we are seeing are due primarily to technology overuse.

      My Foundation Series Workshops are coming up Feb. 18, 19, 20, 2013 in Vancouver for educators and health providers, and am kicking off the workshops with a parent night Feb. 17 at Sutton Place. Below is link to flyers and registration info. Please feel free to pass this onto your colleagues and parents as well, and send me an email if want further info.

      Cris Rowan

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