Violent media induces higher stress reactions (Maass et al., 2010)

These two (Lucky Star) are experiencing different levels of stress

I’m pretty stressed lately from lots of things like graduate school, the CPA poster, class assignments, and daylight savings. But, I’m pretty relaxed when I’m gaming.

Speaking of stress, German psychologists Asja Maass, Arnold Lohaus (University of Bielfeld) and Oliver Wolf (Ruhr-University Bochum) have published an article about media use and its relation to sub-types of stress.

Abstract

The study is on the effects of entertainment media on physiological and psychological indicators of stress. The concept of stress is considered to play a key role in the explanation of the effects of media use on aggression, academic performance, and health. Two types of media (television and video games) and violent versus nonviolent content were compared. Differential effects on physiological measures (heart rate [HR], heart rate variability [HRV], cortisol, salivary alphaamylase [sAA]) and subjective experience were expected. Study participants consisted of 98 boys, aged 11 to 14. Physiological stress reactions were higher for video games than for television with regards to HR and HRV. Violent content had greater effects on physiological stress than nonviolent content, when measured in terms of sAA, cortisol, and HRV. Violent content, in general, was rated as being more stressful but also more enjoyable. The results underline that certain types of media use are associated with subjective and physiological indices of stress.

I’m thinking of doing skype conversations with the grad advisors.

I haven’t encountered such research about media use and stress and I thought this was an apparent novel idea. However, this isn’t true and it seems research was conducted in fields outside of my search parameters, specifically health science.

“Stress… is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” A definition from Hans Selye. The authors contended that stress is an important moderator factor in the relationship between media use (including video games) and various outcome variables, such as aggression (through physiological arousal), academic achievement (through stress hormones affecting learning and memory) and well-being.

The research literature on media and its effect on physiological stress are mixed. Most research regarding heart rate has found that television and video games induce increases in heart rate because it’s exciting. However, the matter becomes ambiguous when it’s about stress-related hormones, such as norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol. Some studies have found increases or decreases in hormone levels after or during an experimental stimulus, usually playing either a violent or non-violent video game. The authors will examine both heart rate and hormonal measures of stress, including looking at different types of media, to elucidate media differences in stress effects.

The authors added the sub-types of stress in order to disentangle the mixed findings from the literature. Distress is described as the negative experience of stress, such as tension, worry and fear. Eustress is the opposite feeling of stress, such as enjoyment, relaxation and good mood. The authors argued that it is quite similar to Csikszentmihlayi’s flow theory. Their expectation is that violent content would lead to higher distress because of its “emotionally arousing and stress-inducing components”. It makes sense in most cases (e.g. news report), but when it comes to entertainment (especially the action genre) IMO, it would be the opposite because the audience and players expected to see violence (within the confines of the genre) and would enjoy the violent action sequences. The authors noted that eustress would also be induced, especially among boys who are attracted to violent media.

The authors contended that video games would have a larger impact than television because it’s more interactive and has more captivating characters. I recently read a book chapter (for a class assignment) and I’m beginning to see how weak the interactive argument becomes. It’s not the interactivity that makes a larger impact, it’s how well executed the interactivity is. If we critically define video games, in this study, it would rest upon its “underlying form” (e.g. gameworld and its mechanics) and “specific cultural conventions” (e.g. setting, character types, etc.) (p.50). I’d say how well the underlying form is made, while cultural conventions taking a secondary role in the experience (unless there are blatant violations), would determine gamer experience, positive or negative. If the form is well made, then cultural conventions become the next determinant factors gamer experience and perhaps into our physiological experience.

Method

Participants

98 boys in the city of Bielfeld, Germany. Average age is 12.77, age range is 12 to 14 years old. A reason for testing only boys is that natural levels of cortisol between sexes are not the same during puberty. Understandable, but they can still analyze the genders separately, right?

These boys reported their media habits, such as, on average, watching TV for 1.72 hours on schooldays and 2.5 hours during weekends. Play time is, on average, at 1.77 hours during schooldays and 2.43 during weekends. Most boys state their favourite genre as action games (43.9%) and movies (35.7%), followed by sports games (30.6%) and programs (16.3%).

Measures

Heart rate and heart rate variability: The unit of measurement for heart rate is beats per minute. Heart rate variability is used as an “expression of the regulation and adaptation processes of the human body and is reduced under stress.”

Cortisol and sAA: saliva samples are taken for cortisol and for the saliva enzyme alpha-amylase which is correlated with increases of norepinephrine.

Subjective experience: Elements taken from the Flow Short Questionnaire and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule are used to determine levels of distress and eustress.

Video games and videos used: The non-violent television is an episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the game version of it (the junior-edition) is also used. A section from the Peter Jackson’s film King Kong is used as the violent condition, the corresponding video game is also used and from the same sequence too. A short description of the violent sequence involves fighting off monsters using physical violence and guns. You get the idea.

There is a problem about the selection, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? can be suspenseful at times, but it’s not action-packed as King Kong which poses a problem when you’re measuring physiological responses. A racing game would be an appropriate substitute, or even a sports match should do the trick because passing a ball through tight defences should arouse many fans.

Once again, generalization issues are raised in that they tested only two games and two television programs. Future studies should probably look into gaming or television features that could produce strong stress reactions or some other physiological responses, like shedding manly tears.

Procedure

All participants are tested in the afternoon at their school. They tested the children in the afternoon because of the circadian rhythm regulating levels of cortisol. Furthermore, the children were instructed not to eat one hour before testing, no exercising either because they affect cortisol levels as well. Participants were randomly assigned to watch the non-violent TV (n = 24), violent TV (n = 24), non-violent game ( n =25) or violent game ( n = 25). The children were tested in groups up to five, were using laptops with headphones, and were asked not to bother any participants during the experiment, it’s similar to this screengrab from that Supernanny episode.

The experiment lasted 45 minutes. Physiological data is measured continuously; heart rate data is separated into three periods of 15 minutes, while heart rate variability is analyzed continuously. Saliva samples were taken before, in the middle and at the end of testing. At the end of testing, the boys completed the subjective experience questionnaire.

I have slight problem on the details of the procedure, in particular with the video game condition. Were the boys given sufficient instructions on how to play the game? Was the game simple enough to master? If these conditions were not met, then the problem of frustration may arise confounding the violent content effect in the game condition.

Results

Their statistical analyses are beyond my understanding. So, I’ll just report what’s significant.

This line graph shows the heart rate levels of violent and non-violent content during the course of the experiment (the types of medium are combined).

The authors noted that video game playing induces higher heart rate than television. The authors interpreted this pattern regarding the violent content that there was an initial increase in attention and concentration during the first period and afterwards habituation of the video game/television follows. This habituation process is already underway for the non-violent video game/television. They interpreted these patterns suggesting that violent programs and game have a more complex effect on cardiovascular reactions and is processed differently from non-violent programs. Perhaps so (IMO), but the different escalation of tension between the different programs may play a role in this pattern. The non-violent game and program becomes tense at a linear fashion (i.e. increasingly difficult questions are given). The violent game and program works under different rules (following film conventions or action-drama conventions) that I believe where tension levels are raised at different or appropriately dramatic times. Think of mid-level boss fights. Although, it may seem far-fetched to believe this assumption may have a role in the observed pattern, and the solution is to present stimuli where the escalation of tension is increased in linear fashion (i.e. harder monsters at every sequences, etc.) would look rather odd in natural settings.

Their analysis on heart rate variability showed that all conditions showed significant decreases from baseline and that the groups differ from each other significantly. In general, video games induce greater decreases than television. Quite notably is that the violent video game group showed the lowest decrease in heart rate variability which translated to the highest level of stress.

Analytical results from the saliva samples, such as sAA and cortisol, followed the general pattern from the heart rate data. sAA levels generally increase over time (with the exception of the non-violent video game) and it was that violent content, regardless of medium, increases the levels of sAA. As for cortisol, the results are similar: decreases from baseline for all groups, except for violent television which followed the same pattern, but was not statistically significant. Group comparative analyses showed that the violent television and non-violent video game group showed statistical differences, with violent film showing the highest level of cortisol. In general, it was found that television and violent content increases cortisol levels. The authors noted that not all participants (n = 32) showed any decreases in cortisol during the experiment. Their interpretation of this data showed that, yes, media content induce physiological stress reactions and should be followed with more studies.

Regarding subjective experience, participants in the violent condition, regardless of medium, reported higher levels of eustress and distress than the non-violent condition. The authors then correlated this data with physiological data and found no significant correlations. So, there’s no conclusive evidence that our subjective experience corresponded with our physiological reactions, nor does it play as a moderating factor.

What’s the take-home message? They found physiological stress reactions from violent content in two types of media, television and video games. It raised the prospect that media-induced stress may be a mediating factor in the relationship between media and (1) aggression, (2) academic performance and (3) well-being. Future studies are suggested to explore the strength of media-induced stress in affecting these three outcome variables as a moderating factor. This is particularly important for some previous studies (Dworak et al., 2007; Bushman, 1998) which found that excessive gaming or watching and violent content was found to affect memory recall and verbal learning. Replicating these studies by adding the stress factor would help clarify media effects.

Maass, A., Lohaus, A., & Wolf, O. T. (2010). Media and stress in adolescent boys in Germany. Journal of Children and Media, 4 (1), 18-38. doi: 10.1080/17482790903407259

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