Last reviewed on January 3, 2010
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
These days, it's hard to find a kid who doesn't play video games. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit research organization, an astounding 92% of children ages 2 to 17 are playing them. When you think about it, it becomes clear why it's so hard to avoid video games completely. They've become part of the culture in which our children are growing up. Should parents be alarmed? As with most issues confronting parents, the answer is not black or white.
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Video Games Are Everywhere
Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation say that more than two thirds of children ages 2 to 18 have video game systems in their homes. A third have one in their bedrooms. Video games are not just played on television sets with consoles. You can also find them as:
- CD-ROMs played on computers. Marketed as games or as educational tools (for some, the term "educational" is rather loosely applied), they are widely available and designed for children as young as toddlers.
- Hand-held video games. Game Boy, Playstation, and various other companies make video game consoles that are easy to carry. These, too, are designed for children of all ages, including very young ones.
- "Extra features" on DVD's. Many movies have video games related to the movie on the disc.
- "Extra features" on computers and cell phones. Almost all come with some preloaded games.
- Internet-based games. Some, like World of Warcraft, require you to buy the software and load it before connecting to the internet to play. Other games are accessed with a special code that comes with the purchase of an item. A good example of this trend are Webkinz, interactive stuffed animals whose labels contain a secret code that allows the child to go online to the Webkinz site. Other games are available for free and without a membership even the website of the Public Broadcasting System (www.pbs.org), has games for children.
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What Are the Risks and Benefits?
Let's talk about the alarming aspects of video games first:
- Screen time. Time spent playing video games is time spent seated, not exercising, and the evidence is clear that this isn't good for a child's health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend no more than two hours a day in front of a screen; the risk of obesity increases as screen-time goes up. With a third of American children overweight, all parents need to be limiting their children's screen time.
- Time displacement. Researchers at the University of Texas published a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in July 2007 showing that teens who play video games spend less time reading and doing homework than those who don't. Although the time differences were as small as two minutes, and the study didn't look at how the gamers did academically, we want our kids to be spending more time reading and studying, not less time.
- Violence. Eighty-nine percent of the top-selling video games contain violence, some of which is quite graphic and realistic. Some studies show that children who play violent video games have an increase in both short-term and long-term aggression. Nobody is saying that every child who plays a violent video game will start beating people up. But it's a worrisome risk factor for violence.
- Addiction. Some people spend so much time on the internet and/or playing video games that it significantly interferes with their lives. Because of the concerns this raises, an American Medical Association committee recently recommended that internet/video game addiction be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a psychiatric diagnosis. It wasn't added, but many experts are very concerned with the effects excessive internet use and video gaming can have on mental and social health. An interesting aspect of the University of Texas study was that teens who played video games alone were more likely to spend time alone in general.
- Exposure to internet predators. While most internet-based video games do put some safeguards in place to protect players' identities, they aren't foolproof (or hacker-proof).
Before you snatch your kindergartener away from nickelodeon.com, not all the news is bad. There are some possible benefits to video games:
- Improved computer skills. As many parents will attest, playing video games can make children very comfortable and proficient with the computer. Given how computers are increasingly a part of daily life, these skills can be very helpful.
- Cognitive benefits. Not only are some video games truly educational, playing video games can improve problem-solving and memory skills.
- Distraction from painful or difficult experiences. Doctors have found that video games can be a nice distraction for children in the hospital, such as those undergoing chemotherapy.
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A Sensible Approach
It's hard to say how big the risks are from video games and if their benefits outweigh the risks. It probably varies from child to child and situation to situation. It may not be realistic to ban all games outright. Here are some suggestions to help the risk-benefit ratio tip in your child's favor:
- Know what your child is playing. This may sound obvious, but you may find yourself surprised at just how violent and disturbing some games for children can be. Become familiar with the rating system, and watch the games yourself.
- Keep track of the time spent playing. Have a scheduled time when playing is allowed.
- Keep the television and computer in a public part of the house not the bedroom. This allows you to be more aware of what your child is playing and for how long.
- Play with your child. This sounds weird, but by playing with your child you truly know what games they're playing and for how long. Also, the University of Texas study showed that teens who play video games with their parents are more likely to spend time doing other things with them as well.
- Encourage other activities. If your child seems to be gravitating toward the television and computer, help him find other more active and productive things to do.
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The Bottom Line
When it comes to making decisions about video games, it boils down to four principles (which actually apply to most parenting decisions): Know the facts, know your child, pay attention and get involved. If you follow these, you'll be making the best decision for your child.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.