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Video Games and Kids: Why they love them, and what parents can do to minimize the risks

by Kai-Ping Wang, M.D.

Brother and sister playing video game




Rapid changes in technology, including the exponential growth of the video game industry, can make the already tough job of parenting even tougher. As a parent, you need to decide whether or not to allow your kids to play video games. If you already allow your children to play, you may be considering ways to minimize any potential negative effects. I'd like to address some of the aspects of video games that appeal to kids and some basic approaches for families interested in incorporating video games in moderation.

Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry present in more than two-thirds of American households. About a third of parents play, and the average player age has steadily increased to about 33. Many of the more popular games incorporate adult themes such as aggression, graphic violence, drug use, and sexual themes. Much like the controversies that often follow popular music, movies, television and comic books, the video game industry has been increasingly scrutinized and criticized.

Depending on the research, evidence on the effects of exposure to video games can be confusing and contradictory. When playing more violent games, studies describe negative effects from increased aggression, decreased inhibition to violence, and increased blood pressure. However, the rate of juvenile violent crime is at a historic low. Many of those studies have been criticized as being inconclusive or methodologically flawed. Positive studies tout improving hand-eye coordination (surgeons who play video games are faster and more accurate in laparoscopic surgeries), stimulating imagination, and improving cognitive thinking, but many of those benefits can be better achieved outside video game play in pursuits such as sports, arts, music, hobbies, and other creative endeavors.

Many of the negative aspects of video games are tied to excessive play. In Korea, a 28-year-old man died from exhaustion after marathon sessions of an online game known as a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Excessive playing leaves less time for academics, social development, and physical activity. When kids become obsessed with "passing the next stage" and "getting to the next level," much like an addict, they may begin to lose their interest and desire for anything else. One public health consequence is that children and teens are much less physically active than in prior generations and we face an epidemic of overweight and obese children.

While different genres of games attract different players, it's possible — and useful — to identify some of the reasons for video games' widespread appeal to kids. For some kids, games offer more than the passive medium of television — providing a facsimile of individualized attention and self-paced stimulation and thus avoiding the frustration of waiting for others or feeling left back. Many attention disordered children will sit enthralled for hours with the right game. Additionally, games can be seen as very fair (in terms of consistency). Actions are usually scored in a reliable, easily learned system. Kids love fairness. Even the most observant teacher or parent may miss something.

Looking to ourselves, as adults we feel good when the work we do is appreciated and acknowledged, and become increasingly frustrated if we feel taken for granted. Video games provide that constant reinforcement and reward. Another source of appeal for many games is that they grant a feeling of control and competency. There is a universal desire to affect the world around us, a sense of mastery in seeing that the actions one takes matter. Some games also track progress and growth from session to session, allowing children to "invest" in the game.

Finally, online games can give kids and teens a connection with others, an ability to compete, opportunities for teamwork, and a sense of belonging in a safe, anonymous environment more insulated from peer judgment. When parents understand what their children see in video games, it allows us to offer alternatives, or moderate their use.

Games are not an inalienable human right

A useful starting point is to raise our children with the idea that video games (and television) are not an entitlement. Establishing entertainment as a privilege that can be lost or earned can be a tremendously useful parenting technique. While most beneficial in a behavior modification system, using video game play time in a simple reward system that is clear and consistent can help encourage positive behavior. Let your child keep a log that you sign off on, either in a small notebook or by creating and printing out checklists. This can be an excellent way to keep track of good behavior and game time earned as a result.

Games are best in moderation

Avoiding excessive play means setting up firm time limits for games. For example, a simple system might limit playing on school days (from none to 60 minutes) and increase the amount of playing time for weekends and holidays. If you're using a point system you can opt to charge overtime (more playing equals extra chores, for example). To keep the system going, respect your child's play time. When she announces she'll be playing for a set amount of time, avoid interruption with small chores or tasks that can wait until later.

It can be helpful to think about your child's leisure-time hours as part of their "entertainment diet." Just as you would not allow your child eat excessive sweets or junk food, you should not allow your child an excessive amount of exposure to mindless or violent content. Limited access to such "guilty" pleasures may provide some fun, but it should not be overdone and should be balanced with activities that enlighten, increase social contact and provide healthy physical and mental exercise.

Many popular games are meant for adults

It's a fallacy that video games are meant only for kids. Many popular games are geared toward adults but, unfortunately, often marketed more broadly. Parents may find the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating helpful, but critics contend that violent content is often underrated for games. The presence of undesirable content may also serve as a useful discussion point for parents to teach children right from wrong.

It's a daunting task to shield your child from all adult material. However, it can be useful to prepare them for when they do encounter it. The big trick is the when and how much. Figuring out what your child can handle means determining their developmental level, including their ability for abstract thinking, their moral and ethical framework, and their coping skills. Taking the time to talk about those more adult elements of a game sends a message to your child that you are interested and available, limits any embarrassment they may feel, encourages questions and critical thinking, and lets you share your values and beliefs with the benefit of concrete examples. Today's kids find role models through their entertainment, and their values and behavior may closely follow.

Make games more social

Games can be very isolating and inhibit social development. One approach to address this deficiency is to increase the social element of video games by involving siblings and family. Look for games that allow for two or more players, including sports games, racing games, and fighting and combat games. In competitive games it's helpful to have the ability to handicap more proficient players. Some games are more cooperative, allowing you to play or work on the same team. They are a few party games dedicated to the multiplayer experience that are usually lackluster solo, but may be good possibilities for a family game night. Another category to explore is special accessory games. There is a karaoke game series, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and the Wii and Wii Fit. The latter, along with the Dance Dance Revolution series can give a physical workout in the context of a video game.

The dangers of going online apply to online games


Online games require closer scrutiny. From Maple Story and Runescape for the younger set to Everquest and World of Warcraft for the older, MMORPGs can be very addicting if children are allowed to play freely. Often they can exacerbate existing social marginalization and enable maladaptive escapism. Additionally, most games effectively serve as chat rooms and permit instant messaging, so the same precautions for going online apply (not using your name, address, phone, or personal details in public forums or if strangers can see the conversation). Online safety is a large topic outside the scope of this article, but a great deal of information is available through the Internet, schools, and counselors.

If you decide to allow your children limited access to video games, particularly outside of those found in the "Family and Kids" section, the task can seem daunting. Another approach, providing another avenue of communication, is to enlist your child's help and have him select games that meet the criteria you set for him. If your child is old enough, he or she can make cases for and against each game and, in the process, allow both of you to get to know what the other finds important. When played in moderation and with the proper discussions, you can transform video games from a distraction that can negatively impact time, energy and health, into a way to bond as a family and educate your children in your values and belief system.

Kai-Ping Wang, M.D. is a former resident of the NYU Child Study Center.