Exposure to media violence, including violent video gaming, can have a cognitive desensitization effect, lowering empathic concern for others in need. Since emerging adulthood offers increased opportunities to volunteer, strengthen relationships, and initiate new relationships, decreases in empathic concern and prosocial behavior may prove inhibitive to optimal development during this time. For these reasons, the current study investigated associations between violent video gaming, empathic responding, and prosocial behavior enacted toward strangers, friends, and family members. Participants consisted of 780 emerging adults (M age = 19.60, SD = 1.86, range = 18–29, 69% female, 69% Caucasian) from four universities in the United States. Results showed small to moderate effects between playing violent video gaming and lowered empathic concern for both males and females. In addition, lowered empathic concern partially mediated the pathways between violent video gaming and prosocial behavior toward all three targets (at the level of a trend for females), but was most strongly associated with lower prosocial behavior toward strangers. Discussion highlights how violent video gaming is associated with lower levels of prosocial behavior through the mechanism of decreased empathic concern, how this association can affect prosocial behavior differently across target, and finally what implications this might have for development during emerging adulthood.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc, G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academic failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 64, 729–742.
Anand, V. (2007). A study of time management: The correlation between video game usage and academic performance markers. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 10, 552–559.
Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J., Linz, D., et al. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 81–110.
Anderson, C. A., Gentile, D. A., & Buckley, K. A. (2007). Violent video game effects on children and adolescents: Theory, research, and public policy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173.
Ang, R. P., & Goh, D. H. (2010). Cyberbullying among adolescents: The role of affective and cognitive empathy, and gender. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 41, 387–397.
Arbuckle, J. L. (2010). AMOS 6.0 user’s guide. Chicago, IL: SPSS Inc.
Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through early twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
Baldaro, B., Tuozzi, G., Codispoti, M., Montebarocci, O., Barbagli, F., Trombini, E., et al. (2004). Aggressive and non-violent videogames: Short-term psychological and cardiovascular effects on habitual players. Stress and Health, 20, 203–208.
Bandura, A., Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C., & Regalia, C. (2001). Sociocognitive self-regulatory mechanisms governing transgressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 125–135.
Barnett, J., Coulson, M., & Foreman, N. (2008, April). The WoW! Factor: Reduced levels of anger after violent on-line play. Poster presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Meeting, Dublin, Ireland.
Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., Carpenter, A., Dulin, L., Harjusola-Webb, S., Stocks, E. L., et al. (2003). “…As you would have them do unto you”: Does imagining yourself in the other’s place simulate moral action? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1190–1201.
Beaver, K. M., Shutt, J. E., Boutwell, B. B., Ratchford, M., Roberts, K., & Barnes, J. C. (2009). Genetic and environmental influences on levels of self-control and delinquent peer affiliation: Results from a longitudinal sample of adolescent twins. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 41–60.
Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61, 808–823.
Boswell, M. K. (2010). Social norms, empathy, and attitudes toward aggression as predictors of bullying in school children (Vol. 70). ProQuest Information & Learning, US. Retrieved from https://www.lib.byu.edu/cgibin/remoteauth.pl?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2010-99040-368&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2009). Comfortably numb: Desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20, 273–277.
Carlo, G., Raffaelli, M., Laible, D. J., & Meyer, K. A. (1999). Why are girls less physically aggressive than boys? Personality and parenting mediators of physical aggression. Sex Roles, 40, 711–729.
Carlo, G., & Randall, B. A. (2002). The development of a measure of prosocial behaviors for late adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31, 31–44.
Carlo, G., Roesch, S. C., Knight, G. P., & Koller, S. H. (2001). Between- or within-culture variation? Culture groups as a moderator of the relations between individual differences and resource allocation preferences. Applied Developmental Psychology, 22, 559–579.
Carrasco, M., Barker, E. D., Tremblay, R. E., & Vitaro, F. (2006). Eysenck’s personality dimensions as predictors of male adolescent trajectories of physical aggression, theft and vandalism. Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 1309–1320.
Cauley, K., & Tyler, B. (1989). The relationship of self-concept to prosocial behavior in children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 4, 51–60.
Collins, W. A., & Madsen, S. D. (2006). Personal relationships in adolescence and early adulthood. In A. L. Vangelisti, D. Perlman & A. Vangelisti (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 191–209). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Cumberbatch, G. (2008). Mass media: Continuing controversies. In D. Albertazzi, & P. Cobley (Eds.), London: Pearson Education.
Davis, M. H. (1983). The effects of dispositional empathy on emotional reactions and helping: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality, 51, 167–184.
Derntl, B., Finkelmeyer, A., Eickhoff, S., Kellermann, T., Falkenberg, D. I., Schneider, F., et al. (2010). Multidimensional assessment of empathic abilities: Neural correlates and gender differences. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 67–82.
Diener, M. L., & Kim, D. Y. (2004). Maternal and child predictors of preschool children’s social competence. Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 3–4.
Durkin, K., & Barber, B. (2002). Not so doomed: Computer game play and positive adolescent development. Applied Developmental Psychology, 23, 373–392.
Eberly, M. B., & Montemayor, R. (1998). Doing good deeds: An examination of adolescent prosocial behavior in the context of parent/adolescent relationships. Journal of Early Adolescence, 13, 403–432.
Eberly, M. B., & Montemayor, R. (1999). Adolescent affection and helpfulness toward parents: A 2-year follow-up. Journal of Early Adolescence, 19, 226–248.
Einolf, C. J. (2010). Does extensivity form part of the altruistic personality? An empirical test of Oliner and Oliner’s theory. Social Science Research, 39, 142–151.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Karbon, M., Murphy, B. C., Wosinski, M., Polazzi, L., et al. (1996). The relations of children’s dispositional prosocial behavior in emotionality, regulation, and social functioning. Child Development, 67, 974–992.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Spinard, T. L. (2006). Prosocial development. In W. Damon (Series Ed.), R. M. Lerner (Series Ed.), & N. Eisenberg (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development (6th ed., pp. 646–718). New York: Wiley.
Eisenberg, N., Miller, P. A., Shell, R., McNalley, S., & Shea, C. (1991). Prosocial development in adolescence: A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 27, 849–857.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA). (2011). Top 10 industry facts. Retrieved on May 18, 2011, from http://www.theesa.com/facts.
Fabes, R. A., Carlo, G., Kupanoff, K., & Laible, D. (1999). Early adolescence and prosocial/moral behavior I: The role of individual processes. Journal of Early Adolescence, 19, 5–16.
Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14, 68–81.
Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, C., & Hartley, R. D. (2009). A multivariate analysis of youth violence and aggression: The influence of family, peers, depression and media violence. Journal of Pediatrics, 155(6), 904–908.
Findlay, L. C., Girardi, A., & Coplan, R. J. (2006). Links between empathy, social behavior, and social understanding in early childhood. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 347–359.
Funk, J. B. (2002). Electronic games. In V. C. Strasburger & B. J. Wilson (Eds.), Children, adolescents, and the media (pp. 117–21144). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Funk, J. B. (2005). Children’s exposure to violent video games and desensitization to violence. Children and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, 14, 387–404.
Funk, J. B., Bechtoldt-Baldacci, H., Pasold, T., & Baumgardener, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the Internet: Is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27, 23–39.
Funk, J. B., Buchman, D. D., Jenks, J., & Bechtoldt, H. (2003). Playing violent video games, desensitization, and moral evaluation in children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 413–436.
Funk, J. B., Buchman, D. D., Schimming, J. L., & Hagan, J. (1998). Attitudes towards violence, empathy, and violent electronic games. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco.
Funk, J. B., Chan, M., Brouwer, J., & Curtiss, K. (2006). A biopsychosocial analysis of the video game-playing experience of children and adults in the United States. Studies in Medical and Information literacy Education, 6, 1–15.
Gehlbach, H. (2004). Social perspective taking: A facilitating aptitude for conflict resolution, historical empathy, and social studies achievement. Theory and Research in Social Education, 32, 39–55.
Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., Yukawa, N., Saleen, M., Lim, K. M., Shibuya, A., et al. (2009). The effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behaviors: international evidence from correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 752–763.
Greitemeyer, T., & Osswald, S. (2009). Prosocial video games reduce aggressive cognitions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 896–900.
Grossman, D., & Degaetano, G. (1999). Stop teaching our kids to kill. New York: Crown.
Hampes, W. P. (2001). Relation between humor and empathic concern. Psychological Reports, 88, 241–244.
Haninger, K., & Thompson, K. M. (2004). Content and ratings of teen-rated video games. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291, 856–865.
Howard, K. A. S., & Walsh, M. E. (2010). Conceptions of career choice and attainment: Developmental levels in how children think about careers. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 143–152.
Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C. L., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressiveness and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201–221.
Hunter, J. A., Figueredo, A. J., Becker, J. V., & Malamuth, N. (2007). Non-sexual delinquency in juvenile sexual offenders: The mediating and moderating influences of emotional empathy. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 43–54.
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Key facts: Children and video games. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/3271-index.cfm.
Karniol, R., & Shomroni, D. (1999). What being empathic means: Applying the transformation rule approach to individual differences in predicting the thoughts and feelings of prototypic and nonprototypic others. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29, 147–160.
Kerr, M. H., Beck, K., Shattuck, T. D., Kattar, C., & Uriburu, D. (2003). Family involvement, problem and prosocial behavior outcomes of Latino youth. American Journal of Health Behavior, 27, S55–S65.
Klimmt, C. (2004). Computer-und videospiele [Computer-and video games]. In R. Mangold, P. Vorderer, & G. Bente (Eds.), Lehrbuch der Pedienpsuchologie [Media psychology textbook] (pp. 695–716). Gottingen: Hogrefe.
Killen, M., & Turiel, E. (1998). Adolescents’ and young adults’ evaluations of helping and sacrificing for others. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8, 355–375.
Klug, G. C., & Schell, J. (2006). Why people play games: An industry perspective. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses and consequences (pp. 91–100). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Laible, D. J., Carlo, G., & Roesch, S. (2004). Pathways to self-esteem: The role of parent and peer attachment, empathy, and social behaviors. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 703–716.
Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., MacGill, A., Evans, C., & Mitak, J. (2008). Teens, video games and civics: Teens gaming experiences are diverse and include significant social interaction and civic engagement. Retrieved January 2, 2010 from http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/263/report_display.asp.
Lovett, B. J., & Sheffield, R. A. (2007). Affective empathy deficits in aggressive children and adolescents: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 1–13.
McNemar, Q. (1945). The mode of operation of suppressant variables. American Journal of Psychology, 58, 554–555.
Miley, W. M., & Spinella, M. (2006). Correlations among measures of executive function and positive psychological attributes in college students. Journal of General Psychology, 133, 175–182.
Moore, C. W., & Alenn, J. P. (1996). The effects of volunteering on the young volunteer. Journal of Primary Prevention, 17, 231–258.
Mounts, N., Valentiner, D., Anderson, K., & Boswell, M. (2006). Shyness, sociability, and parental support for the college transition: Relation to adolescents’ adjustment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 68–77.
Natel-Vivier, A., Kokko, K., Caprara, G. V., Pastorelli, C., Gerbino, M. G., Paciello, M., et al. (2009). Prosocial development from childhood to adolescence: A multi-informant perspective with Canadian and Italian longitudinal studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(5), 590–598.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The condition of education, 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available: http://www.nces.gov.
National Institute on Media and the Family. (2002). MediaWise video game report card. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from http://www.mediafamily.org/research/report_vgrc_index.shtml.
Nelson, L. J., & Barry, C. M. (2005). Distinguishing features of emerging adulthood: The role of self-classification as an adult. Journal of Adolescent Research, 20, 242–262.
Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Carroll, J. S., Madsen, S. D., Barry, C. M., & Badger, S. (2007). ‘If you want me to treat you like an adult, start acting like one!’ Comparing the criteria that emerging adults and their parents have for adulthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 21, 665–674.
Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Badger, S., McNamara Barry, C., Carrol, J. S., & Madsen, S. D. (2008). Associations between shyness and internalizing behaviors, externalizing behaviors, and relationships during emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescents, 37, 605–615.
Ogletree, S. M., & Drake, R. (2007). College students’ video game participation and perceptions: Gender differences and implications. Sex Roles, 56, 537–542.
Padilla-Walker, L. M., Barry, C. M., Carroll, J. S., Madsen, S. D., & Nelson, L. J. (2008). Looking on the bright side: The role of identity status and gender on positive orientations during emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 451–467.
Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Christensen, K. J. (2011). Empathy and self-regulation as mediators between parenting and adolescents’ prosocial behaviors toward strangers, friends, and family. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 545–551.
Padilla-Walker, L. M., Nelson, L. J., Carroll, J. S., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). More than just a game: Video game and internet use during emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 103–113.
Pell Institute. (2004). Indicators of opportunity in higher education. Washington, DC: Pell Institute.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin.
Reimer, T. (2001). Attributions for poor group performance as a predictor of perspective-taking and subsequent group achievement: A process model. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 4, 31–47.
Rideout, V., Roberts, D. F., & Foehr, U. G. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8–18 year olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
Rule, B. K., & Ferguson, T. J. (1986). The effects on media violence on attitude, emotions, and cognitions. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 29–50.
Sherry, J. L. (2001). The effects of violent video games on aggression: A meta-analysis. Human Communication and Research, 27, 409–431.
Sherry, J. L., Lucas, K., Greenburg, B. S., & Lachlan, K. (2006). Video game uses and gratifications as predictors of use and game preference. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 213–224). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Shrout, P. E., & Bolger, N. (2002). Mediation in experimental and non-experimental studies: New procedures and recommendations. Psychological Methods, 7, 422–445.
Smith, S. L., Lachlan, K., & Tamborini, R. (2003). Popular video games: Quantifying the presentation of violence and its context. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47, 58–76.
Sparks, G. G., & Sparks, C. W. (2002). Effects of media violence. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Media effects. Advances in theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 269–285). Mahwah, Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Staub, E. (1978). Positive social behavior and morality: Social and personal influences (Vol. 1). New York: Academic.
Staub, E. (1995). The roots of prosocial and antisocial behavior in persons and groups: Environmental influence, personality, culture, and socialization. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Moral development: An introduction (pp. 431–453). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Steinberg, L. (2005). Cognitive and affective development in adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 69–74.
Tur, A. M., Mestre, M. V., & del Barrio, M. V. (2004). Factores moduladores de la conducta agresiva y prosocial. El efecto de los hábitos de crianza en la conducta del adolescente. Ansiedad y Estrés, 10, 75–88.
van der Mark, I. L., van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J. (2002). Development of empathy in girls during the second year of life: Associations between parenting, attachment, and temperament. Social Development, 11, 451–468.
Weber, R., Ritterfeld, U., Kostygina, A., Vorderer, P., & Bryant, J. (Eds.). (2006). Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 347–361). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wei, R. (2007). Effects of playing violent video games on Chinese adolescents’ pro-violence attitudes, attitudes toward others, and aggressive behavior. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 10, 371–380.
Wentzel, K. R. (2003). Sociometric status and adjustment in middle school: A longitudinal study. Journal of Early Adolescence, 23, 5–28.
Weyant, J. M. (2007). Perspective taking as a means of reducing negative stereotyping of individuals who speak English as a second language. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 703–716.
Williams, D., & Skoric, M. (2005). Internet fantasy violence: A test of aggression in an online game. Communication Monographs, 72, 217–233.
Willliam T. Grant Foundation commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. (1988). The forgotten half: Non-college-bound youth in America. Washington, DC: William T. Grant Foundation.
Young, S. K., Fox, N. A., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (1999). The relations between temperament and empathy in 2-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1189–1197.
The authors express appreciation to the instructors and students at all Project READY data collection sites for their assistance. We also are grateful for the grant support of the Family Studies Center and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Fraser, A.M., Padilla-Walker, L.M., Coyne, S.M. et al. Associations Between Violent Video Gaming, Empathic Concern, and Prosocial Behavior Toward Strangers, Friends, and Family Members. J Youth Adolescence 41, 636–649 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-012-9742-2
- Emerging adulthood
- Media violence
- Video games
- Prosocial behavior