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.

Whenever I speak at a conference, someone always asks me to weigh in on the controversy surrounding whether or not to label excessive cyber behaviors as addiction.  I usually begin to tackle such questions by sharing conversations I have had with video game designers, marketing strategists, and industry executives.  These people understand how the brain works, and they use this knowledge to design games and various applications in such a way that they easily embed themselves into the reward circuitry of the brain.  This means that the dopamine circuits of the frontal brain, those most closely associated with reward and pleasure, become so highly active when playing a certain game or application, that these activities frequently become preferred.  In an increasing number of cases, this preference is so strong that individuals begin to turn away from friends and family, career opportunities, and even activities that were once a source of enjoyment.

News outlets focus on sensational and outlandish stories, like the 16-hour-a-day World of Warcraft devotees, or death from deep vein thrombosis after a 40-hour gaming binge.  The more troubling reality, however, is that the average American child spends close to five hours a day in front of a screen.  Excessive screen time correlates with obesity, attention issues, sleep troubles, poor performance in school, and social issues. America’s board rooms are even starting to become aware that employees’ screen habits can hurt the bottom line.  In a series of interviews with executives for a recent article in the New York Times, the consensus was “that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.”  Realizing the potential for harm, many of the giants of Silicon Valley have begun encouraging mindfulness classes, exercise programs, and simply providing ideas to balance and integrate screen time in healthier ways. It is of course a great irony that many of the developers of these alluring cyber amusements are now realizing the potential downside.  The rest of society lags far behind, however.

While it is heartening that companies like Facebook, Zynga, Microsoft, and eBay have begun to address this problem within their own organizations, I wish they would take some responsibility in the wider world.  The Times article also pointed out that many companies view their activities through the “Fast-food Paradigm,” that while they may provide cyber “junk food,” they are not responsible for the choices people make.

As I have in the past, I call on the companies who profit from technology to spend more resources in public service campaigns to alert citizens to the dangers of excessive use of technology.  Parents need to understand age appropriate levels of screen time, and must be educated on how to properly guide their children, so that lives do not get swallowed up by the screen.  Even mental health professionals lack basic information needed to recognize cyber-related problems.  The solution lies not in eliminating these technologies, but rather in a drastic increase in awareness of how to use them responsibly.

Video games, smart phones, social networking, the Internet, and computers are powerful tools.  People adept with these technologies can use them to advance and succeed.  Controlling predator drones and monitoring battlefield activity are now achieved through video-game-like interfaces.  Facebook and Twitter are essential to sales and marketing.  Smart phones can radically increase worker productivity.  People who play moderate amounts of video games increase visual-spatial acuity and hand-eye coordination.  But we need much more consciousness about how to benefit from these technologies without diminishing our social skills.  We need more research to understand how increasing “screen dependence” is rewiring our brains.  We need to learn to use the offerings of the cyber world to increase our opportunities for fulfillment, not restrict them.