Flood 2014: The Death of an Xbox

Ancient Egyptian civilization required regular flooding. The harnessing of water through irrigation and the nutrients that went into the soil caused the desert to bloom. The miracle of the Nile allowed a parched landscape to thrive. The recent deluge in the Detroit area makes me mindful of one potential benefit that might help a parched landscape of a different sort. In my personal and professional opinion, video games are causing a desertification in the social skills of our children. Yesterday’s flood waters may have lent parents a helping hand.

One city in this area, Huntington Woods, experienced a massive torrent of water that caused the storm drains to back up and almost every basement in the city to fill with sewer water; basements, the place where most families keep their video game systems. I realized the potential opportunity when I was helping a friend clean out her basement yesterday and came upon her son’s water-logged Xbox. “When he saw the flooded basement last night,” she told me, “his first question was, ‘Where’s my Xbox?’” Children often struggle with priorities and perhaps even empathy, but this boy’s reaction disturbed his mother to such an extent that she declared right then and there, “No more Xbox in this house!”

We know a problem exists when an individual starts to prefer video games, the Internet or the computer, to people. When activities once enjoyed and pursued take a permanent back seat to the video game console, it is time to take notice. Behavior modification plans can be enacted, and measures can be taken to limit game and Internet time. It is remarkably difficult, however, for parents to play constant cyber cop, patrolling the house to make sure children are not circumventing the rules and imposing punishment when transgressions are uncovered. Over half of families that try this approach end up failing, because children are so adept at attaining access, and constant vigilance gets to be grueling. These children have grown up totally in the cyber age and easily outsmart parents when it comes to technology.

So, maybe these floods have given some of us an opportunity: Do Not Replace Your Xbox! The floods may have destroyed your basement and parts of your home, but video games could well be destroying your child’s life. Does he or she play with friends face to face? Is your child getting regular exercise? Does your child spend more time in front of a screen than on homework? Do you have to fight to get your child off a game? If video games prevent your child from leading a balanced life, maybe it’s time to get rid of them, or at least not replace them.

When we spend time in certain activities, the brain responds by allowing the neural circuits needed for those activities to thrive, while it “prunes” back those that are not being used. I am afraid that the neural networks needed for face-to-face human interaction are becoming parched. I worry that our young people are becoming screen-oriented to the detriment of balance in their lives. As the people of Egypt needed the life-giving waters of the Nile to sustain their civilization, I believe we need renewal in our own culture. Consider that recent floods have brought us a small opportunity to move in that direction.

Are Video Games Good for Your Child?

A new study found a correlation, not causation, between children with happy and balanced lives and playing video game for an hour or less per day. What I find irritating about this study is that this is common sense and yet someone paid lots of money to fund “scientists” to figure this out. Yes, for the most part, children who do not bury themselves in video games are leading more balanced and healthy lives. Rather than squatting in front of a screen, they are out at the ball field, going to camps, hanging out with friends, and having a life. These children are not following the sedentary trend that grips the Western world.

But video games are not creating their sense of well-being. Rather, playing for short periods is what one would expect to find in the life of a child who has other activities going on. So, if your child has social-skill deficits, suffers from hyperactivity, and has few outside interests that engage him or her, your child is more likely to be a problem video gamer, i.e., play an average of more than three hours a day. The games do not create the problem; your child’s brain does. But the gaming behavior can make underlying difficulties worse. Children with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome are, for example at a much higher risk for become problem gamers, but the gaming does not create these neurobiologically-driven conditions!

If your child has a social skill deficit and spends four hours a day by himself, in front of a screen, then the problem will get worse. If your child struggles with impulsivity and waiting his or her turn, placating your child by parking him or her in front of a PlayStation will not help the situation. As any good parent knows, your child needs to learn how to get along with others. Your child also needs to be physically active, both to put him or her on a long-term positive health trajectory and to help him or her lead a balanced life. Your child also needs to learn to work hard, and to delay a small, short-term reward, for a longer-term, but much larger one. Excessive video gaming can get in the way of all these development steps.

Video games are great, in moderation. They can help with eye-hand coordination, visual-spatial acuity, and can even make learning fun. When a child plays video games in excess, however, behavioral problems are probably already present. Video games are the great escape for today’s troubled children, but they usually make their problems worse. The logic holds for smart phones too. Excess gaming is a sign that some deeper issue is present. So when your child starts to exhibit excess interest in gaming, it might be time to get professional help.

When parents call me, they are usually at the end of their rope, dealing with a teenager who is already a full-fledged addict. It is best to start modeling healthy tech behavior when your children are young. Consider tackling this issue as a family by following my top five technology tips.

Kevin’s Top Five Family Technology Tips
1. Have at least some tech-free time as a family. Don’t allow smart phones at the dinner table, for example.
2. In addition to tech-free time, have tech-free zones. Many families I work with choose to use the family room for this purpose. Cell phones, video game consoles, laptops, iPads, and computers are not allowed in there.
3. Set a maximum time allowed on video games and the computer. I recommend no more than two hours a day.
4. For each minute spent on the computer or video game, require a corresponding minute of exercise. This will allow you to combat the tendency for technology to create sedentary and obese children.
5. No TV’s, computers, or video game consoles in the bedroom.