Video Games: Good or Evil?

There are many statements floating around out there about video games that suggest they should be either vilified or, less commonly, celebrated. “Video games are purported to…

…wreck your kid’s ability to pay attention.”

…make your kid violent.”

…take care of  your kids needs for physical activity, at least if he or she uses systems like Wii or Xbox Connect.”

“…promote addictive behaviors.”

“….offer a solution to social anxiety.”

In this column I’d like to make eight suggestions about video games that will respond to these and other concerns.

#1 Limit your kids total access to sedentary electronic pleasures to two hours a day. This is the sound counsel of authoritative bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. If your kid is spending more time than this he or she is likely missing out on other important activities such as physical activity, doing homework and socializing face-to-face. Actually, if you are mostly hitting your stride as a family you may find that your kids don’t have more than two hours a day free anyway.

#2 Take the ratings seriously but also realize that they can, for any given game, not be a fit for your child. (I find some parents are surprised by just how graphic and adult-themed video games marketed for kids and teens can be.). If my kid is exposed to material that he or she is not developmentally ready for, symptoms can emerge (e.g., becoming aggressive, having a difficult time sleeping).  There are also parent advisory websites you can review content in the games. Click here for one such example.

#3 Watching your kid playing acceptable video games, and commenting on his or her skill as well as how much you enjoy spending time together, can be a useful way to spend special time. (Readers of this blog, and my parenting book, know about my recommendation to spend one hour a week, with each kid, one-on-one, doing special time.)

#4 If you’ve been reading this blog and/or my book, you know that another activity commonly recommended by authoritative bodies is for each child to sweat and breathe hard for 60 minutes a day. Video game playing activity counts towards this only if your child is actually sweating and breathing hard. If he or she can’t carry on a normal conversation and sweat is changing the color of his or her shirt, you’re good. Otherwise, it doesn’t count.

#5 Many gaming systems, and their attached games, provide online access. Imagine the following scenario. You sign your kid up for a martial arts class at your local Y, a class which encourages participants to interact and get to know each other. In the class are other kids like your kid. But there is also a 44 year old divorced man who is sexually frustrated and medicating his pain with alcohol, a 25 year-old man who is struggling to control his urges to sexually assault children and a woman who medicates her severe anxiety by chain smoking marijuana. How okay would that be? Point made? For an article on some specific suggestions to promote monitoring of your child’s or teen’s online life, click here.

#6 Keep an eye on how your kids’ video gaming impacts him or her. You are the world’s leading expert on your kid. Use that expertise to gauge how a given video game is affecting him or her, if at all. For instance, I once knew a kid in elementary school who started playing a couple hours of an E rated game each week. At the same time he started becoming aggressive at recess. His parents made the connection and took steps to resolve the situation (a straight-forward banning of the game wasn’t indicated. I describe this case in my parenting book in the chapter on monitoring).

#7 Many parents ask, “should I let my kid have a video game system in his or her bedroom?” Until I see a well-controlled research study that investigates this with a sample that is large enough to allow for broad generalizations, it’s hard for me to feel strongly either way. But, my intuition, is that if you follow all the other guidelines in this blog entry, and your kid is generally doing well in life, it’s probably okay. But, I wouldn’t hook up access to television programing as there are too many ways that could be problematic (e.g., becoming too withdrawn from family life, putting it on when he or she should be sleeping). Also, keep in mind that if having a video game system in the room proves to be problematic, it doesn’t take an act of congress to undue it 😉

#8 What are the signs that the video gaming is becoming, or has become, problematic? The easiest sign is that your child is acting like he is crack dependent and the game playing is the crack. If this is the case, see this blog entry that breaks down how to deal with this kind of scenario. Otherwise, the gaming is problematic if it is interfering with any other important developmental tasks or if it is associated with symptoms. If in doubt, I’d recommend seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional. For a referral click here.

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