Upfront

Teens who play mature-rated, risk-glorifying video games may be more likely than those who don't to become reckless drivers who experience increases in automobile accidents, police stops and willingness to drink and drive, according to new research in APA's online journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

"Most parents would probably be disturbed to learn that we observed that this type of game play was more strongly associated with teen drivers being pulled over by the police than with their parenting practices," says study lead author Jay G. Hull, PhD, of Dartmouth College. "With motor vehicle accidents the No. 1 cause of adolescent deaths, popular games that increase reckless driving may constitute even more of a public health issue than the widely touted association of video games and aggression."

Researchers conducted a longitudinal study involving more than 5,000 U.S. teenagers who answered a series of questions over four years in four waves of telephone interviews. Fifty percent of the teens reported in the first interview that their parents allowed them to play mature-rated games and among those, 32 percent said they had played Spider-Man 2, 12 percent had played Manhunt and 58 percent had played Grand Theft Auto III. Playing video games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Manhunt and Spider-Man 2 was associated with increases in sensation seeking, rebelliousness and self-reported risky driving, the study found. Higher rankings in sensation seeking and rebelliousness were directly linked to risky driving habits, automobile accidents, being stopped by police and a willingness to drink and drive, according to the analysis.

Between the second and third interviews, teens who said they had been pulled over by the police increased from 11 percent to 21 percent; those who said they had a car accident went from 8 percent to 14 percent. In the third interview, when the teens were about 16 years old, 25 percent said "yes" when asked if they engaged in any unsafe driving habits. In the final interview, when the teens were about 18, 90 percent said "yes" to at least one of the same risky driving habits: 78 percent admitted to speeding; 26 percent to tailgating; 23 percent to failure to yield; 25 percent to weaving in and out of traffic; 20 percent to running red lights; 19 percent to ignoring stop signs; 13 percent to crossing a double line; 71 percent to speeding through yellow lights; and 27 percent to not using a seatbelt.

The researchers determined the teens' levels of sensation seeking and rebelliousness by asking them to rate themselves on a four-point scale following statements such as "I like to do dangerous things" and "I get in trouble at school." The study controlled for variables such as gender, age, race, parent income and education, and parenting styles described as warm and responsive or demanding. 

"Playing these kinds of video games could also result in these adolescents developing personalities that reflect the risk-taking, rebellious characters they enact in the games and that could have broader consequences that apply to other risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking," Hull says.

The information regarding the teens' driving habits was based on their own reports during the interviews, and therefore interpretation of the causes of their driving habits was speculative, the authors noted. "At the same time, because the study began when the participants were playing video games but were too young to drive, it is clear that the videogame exposure preceded the risky driving," Hull says.

—Lisa Bowen