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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Video Games -- What Parents Need To Know

December 17, 2013

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

I've yet to meet a child who doesn't like video games. There are games for every age. You can play them on different platforms or online. And they can be really fun. But this kind of entertainment has downsides that parents need to be aware of.

Video gaming is a sedentary activity. This isn't a big deal if kids spend less than two hours a day total watching TV or playing video games. But you don't want media time to crowd out time spent being physically active.  There are some games that require activity, such as dance competition games or games that involve playing a sport virtually; parents should look for those. 

Too much fast-paced video gaming can cause behavioral problems. "Fast-paced" means that the action goes quickly, with the images changing every few seconds. Children who spend a lot of time playing fast-paced video games may be at risk for executive function problems. This is especially true for young children. And fast-paced videos can lead to the same problem. "Executive functions" are mental processes involved in planning, negotiating, trouble-shooting and delaying gratification. They are crucial for good behavior — and good social interactions.

Many video games contain a lot of violence. This is even true in games commonly played by elementary school children. Exposure to media violence has been linked to behavioral problems and aggression in children. And there is plenty of very graphic violence in video games. Also, experts worry about the effects on children of being the one carrying out the violence, as opposed to just watching it. They worry that being an active participant, as opposed to a passive one, can exaggerate the effects of media violence. 

Some children may get addicted to them. Children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are especially vulnerable to addiction. But anyone can become addicted. It's easy to get caught up in "making it to the next level," and lose track of time. Not only does this end up taking time away from exercise, school work or social activities, but addiction can lead to lots of other problems. 

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that children should never play video games. As I said, they can be very fun. And some of them are educational and offer opportunities for exercise.

As with everything in life and parenthood, common sense and moderation are key. Here are three simple ways parents can help be sure that video games don't cause problems for their children:

  • Limit the time spent playing them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children limit time in front of screens to no more than two hours a day. For some children, two hours may be too much. Have rules — and enforce them.

  • Choose games wisely. Pay attention to the ratings. Avoid buying a game for your 7-year old that is rated for teens. Instead, look for games that are educational or involve movement.

  • Supervise — and join in. Watch your kids while they play to see what the games are really like. Even better, play with them! Not only will you get a real sense of the game and how your child reacts to it, but you'll be spending time together.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.  She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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