Introduction to Sociology/Technology, the Internet, and Virtual Worlds
A relatively new area of research in the social sciences has focused on video games, virtual worlds, social networks, and digital media. This chapter explores some of the findings related to these new domains of social life.
While there are many benefits to social networks, like developing business networks or maintaining contact with friends and family who live far away, one criticism that has been leveled of social networks is that they provide a history of objectionable behaviors that may cause problems in one's life in the future. For instance, some people have posted pictures of themselves and their friends engaging in raucous behavior, like drinking heavily or using illicit drugs. Given the knowledge that these pictures can be damaging to their future, some have asked why individuals would post such pictures. Recent research suggests that the reason may be that these individuals do not want to feel left out of social groups that are important to them, leading them to engage in the same types of behaviors and posting photographs on social networks as proof of their behavior.
Just because interactions on social networks are digital doesn't mean the inequality that exists in the regular world doesn't also exist on social networks. For instance, one recent study found that women who posted sexualized Facebook profile photos were evaluated as less physically attractive, less socially attractive, and less competent to complete tasks than were women who posted nonsexualized photos.
By one estimate, close to 68% of all Americans play some form of video or computer game. A different study looking at video gaming among teens found that 51.2% of high school students play video games, though this differs substantially by gender, with 76.3% of boys and 29.2% of girls playing video games.
Benefits of Video Games
One benefit of video games is enhanced visual attention. Action games that are fast-paced and emphasize rapid responses to visual information while demanding divided attention, like Halo, improve players ability to focus on relevant visual information. In the modern world filled with information and possible sensory input, being able to focus your visual attention on important and relevant information can actually help prevent sensory overload. Individuals who play action games consistently outperform individuals who do not on tasks related to visual attention. To rule out the possibility that it is simply people with better visual attention focusing abilities who play fast-paced games, individuals were trained using the games and their visual attention scores improved as a result. Thus, one benefit of certain types of video games is an enhanced ability to flexibly and precisely control attention.
Detrimental Effects of Video Games
While video gaming does not affect most high school students negatively, in a small subset (4.9%, gaming itself is a problem (i.e., they have difficulties limiting the time spent gaming). Among this subset, gaming is linked to regular cigarette smoking, drug use, depression, and serious fights.
It has long been debated whether or not video game use, particularly playing violent video games, increases aggression. The findings on this are mixed, with some studies suggesting it does and others that it does. Even when there are differences in aggression, they are typically quite small, suggesting the effect of video games on aggression is minimal. Among girls, video gaming in a few cases has been associated with getting in serious fights and carrying a weapon to school. In contrast, some studies have found that playing video games may reduce aggression because it is cathartic.
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- Desai, Rani A., Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, Dana Cavallo, and Marc N. Potenza. 2010. “Video-Gaming Among High School Students: Health Correlates, Gender Differences, and Problematic Gaming.” Pediatrics peds.2009-2706.
- Ferguson, Christopher J., and Cheryl K. Olson. 2014. “Video Game Violence Use Among ‘Vulnerable’ Populations: The Impact of Violent Games on Delinquency and Bullying Among Children with Clinically Elevated Depression or Attention Deficit Symptoms.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 43(1):127–36.