T. Atilla Ceranoglu, MD

Video Games: Friend or Foe?

What you need to know about effects of video games on children?

Children around us are playing video games four times more than they did a decade ago. There are concerns about effects of video games on emotional health of our children. Some researchers, politicians and members of the general public think that certain types of game content are associated with aggression, violence, or academic problems among youth. Some see video games as potentially addictive. Health problems, such as obesity and sleep deficits among US youth, are also sometimes linked to video game play. Now policies and laws are being proposed to protect youth from these effects.

Yet, there are also benefits of video game play for our children. Some cognitive skills actually improve with video game play. These cognitive skills include 1) the visual-spatial function, or the ability to retain large chunks of information all at once and consequently the ability to think through it, 2) multitasking, and 3) increased ability to sustain focus on task at hand while managing distractions. Clinicians and game developers are now working together in various fields to design and develop specific programs to enhance learning process, or in the service of several medical fields such as chemotherapy adherence, physical therapy and rehabilitation medicine.

Then, where lies the truth? Are video games good or evil? What are the factors that mediate each of these effects on the cognitive and emotional well being of a player?

When we look closely to these games and related research, the truth reveals itself: As much as a particular video game or its content, perhaps more importantly, it is the circumstances of video game play that mediate these effects. Therefore, in addition to analyzing what each game features, we should also consider the characteristics of the video game play: Where, when, how long and with whom the child is playing.

Where? Kids who tend to have a video game console in their bedroom tend to play longer hours than their counterparts. They also are more likely to play video games designed for older people.

When and how long? Kids who play video games 2-3 hours prior to bedtime tend to have more difficulty falling asleep than their counterparts. Furthermore, kids who play longer hours tend to have more attention and memory problems. However, kids who play shorter duration are more likely to have improvement in their ability to sustain focus and freedom from distractibility.

With whom? According to recent surveys, only 1 in 20 teenager plays with a parent. This likely is a manifestation of digital divide, that represents the lack of familiarity with video games among parents. Until the generation M2 becomes parents themselves, this digital divide will likely continue. Such divide may lead to supervision gaps. Yet, there is another aspect of this. At a time when parents are often pushed out of homes and left with little time to spend with their children, VGs and TV may become surrogate babysitters with outsized influence, unbalanced by meaningful interaction with parents. This is especially concerning with younger children who lack the maturity to recognize and differentiate the subtleties in VGs. For older children, the total time spent on VG play may be a more of a problem than VG content.

Still, the content of VG can have deleterious, preoccupying effect on a child or adolescent who especially lacks the skills or maturity to differentiate fantasy from real. Thankfully, there are ways to determine these factors, and it requires getting to know our children, spending time with them and observing how they react to playing a video game. Empathy develops early on. By age 3, a child may be able to understand and shift perspective to that of others and imagine the pain or suffering that may occur, but will probably not know how to comfort or help the other person and especially themselves for another couple years. Similarly the concept of death is not fully formed in a child's mind until in some cases 9 or 10 years old. Even then, it is still a huge task for a child to be able to self-soothe. To such a child, persistent images of killing live or dead people on a screen may still be too intense.

Therefore, consider setting limits on video game play before eliminating them completely:

Check the ESRB rating of each video game you consider for your child. Also, check out trusted websites for video game reviews before you purchase a game.     

Get the video game console out of the room and bring it to a family place.

Schedule video game play to end 2 or 3 hours prior to bedtime. In other words, let your child play when there is daylight outside (unless you are close to North or South Pole).

Set no longer than 45-60 mins blocks of video game play with at least same amount of other activities in between. This will likely help your child retain the benefits of video game play on attention span.

Play with your child. Elsewhere on this website, you will find some tips on how to get into playing video games with your child.