When I started my practice almost thirty years ago, Sesame Street and the benign Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood captured our children’s attention. Disney movies proliferated throughout the video market and they followed a similar fairy tale pattern in which a hero or heroine is pursued by a villain but triumphs in the end. Children learned which personality traits ultimately prevail: goodness, honesty, kindness, and beauty.
However, that landscape has dramatically changed. No longer are children passive observers of make-believe worlds; they now have an opportunity to participate in their fantasy worlds by manipulating levers, pushing buttons, and pressing keys. The visuals are aggrandized, exploding onto the screen with uber-realistic images. And because these video games are so captivating, parents use them to entertain children when they are driving, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, or resting from a tiring day.
Over 94% of children are now online, over 73% are on Facebook, and over 75% of children own cell phones. So how is this impacting our children?
Let’s take a look at what the research says about the impact of video games on a child’s developing brain.
Research has proven that there are significant changes that occur in the brain while a child is engaged in playing video games, particularly violent video games. When children are playing violent video games, there is less activity in the brain that involves emotions, attention, and inhibition of impulses. There is also an increase in aggressive behavior following violent video games. (These changes are temporary, and the child’s brain does reset to its normal position in time.)
However, an interesting finding occurred when researchers examined the impact of playing non-violent video games versus violent video games. Children who played non-violent video games still had brain changes but were able to re-establish normal equilibrium in a shorter amount of time. This translates into the fact that if children are playing violent video games it will take the brain longer to set itself back to “normal.”
Let’s address a myth that circulates about aggressive video games. Yes, engaging in aggressive video game playing does stimulate certain regions in the brain that will elevate your child’s aggression and anxiety. However, as mentioned previously, the child’s brain does restore itself to a normal level of functioning in due time.
What I have observed with video games and aggression, however, is that children who already have the capacity for heightened aggression and anger will be over-stimulated by violent video games, and their aggressiveness will increase. For these children, it is best to limit the aggressive game playing.
There are many more positive effects from playing video games than there are negative ones. The following are just a sample of the researched positive effects that video game playing has on children. (Keep in mind that most of this research focuses on non-violent video games.) Video games give a child’s brain a workout. In addition, many of the video games require higher levels of thinking that will enable children to:
- follow instructions
- improve eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills, and spatial skills
- plan and manage resources
- think quickly, make fast analysis and decisions
- gain accuracy
- develop reading and math skills
- recognize patterns
- improve memory and concentration
- engage in activities that simulate real world skills
- gain brain matter in the hippocampus (vital organ for memory), the right prefrontal cortex (the seat of higher level thinking and planning), and the cerebellum (important for motor control)
There are, however, negative effects and these need to be taken into account in order for parents to balance their children’s game playing. Caution should always be applied to the playing of violent video games. Some researchers believe that playing violent video games does increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Negative effects of video games
Increased aggression directly related to the repeated acts of violence during which time your child is controlling this violence. In the case of violent video games, aggression is encouraged and rewarded.
Socially isolated children are more likely to turn to video games for recreation rather than interacting with other children.
Academic achievement may be negatively related to increased time spent on video games.
Violent video games can teach kids the wrong values. Aggressive behaviors, vengeance, and violence are rewarded.
Video game playing may have bad effects on children’s health such as obesity and postural, skeletal, and muscular disorders, such as, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Playing video games my make your child more vulnerable to other online dangers.
Certain studies claim that video game playing can become addictive and thus increases a child’s tendency toward depression and heightened anxiety. Addicted children also exhibit social phobias and have decreased school performance.
Getting the best from video games
In order to have video game-playing be the best experience for your child, you'll want to follow these tips:
- Monitor video game playing the same way you monitor television viewing and other media.
- Engage the entire family in the video games. This decreases the sense of isolation, forces the child to interact, and parents can be available to modulate the levels of aggression.
- Give your child a variety of options for play such as drawing, reading, sports, and board games. Make sure that video game playing does not occupy a majority of the child’s recreation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children not spend more than one to two hours per day in front of electronic screens.
- Monitor your child’s response to playing video games, particularly ones that involve aggression. If it appears as if he or she is becoming more aggressive with you and siblings, stop any playing of violent video games.
- Limit your child’s video game playing if you see him or her spending less time doing homework, has a sedentary lifestyle, and is not engaging in sports, and play with peers.
- Choose video games wisely. Be sure that they are suitable for your child’s age
- Choose games that require your child to come up with strategies, and make decisions. The game should be more complex than just punching, jabbing, stealing, or killing.
- Look for games that involve multiple players to encourage family play.
Keeping these guidelines in mind, you’ll be able to help your child engage in the technological world with confidence. Choosing the right video games will make your child smarter. Playing video games will change your child’s brain structure the same way as learning to read, playing the piano, or skiing. Like physical exercise, video game-playing can build and strengthen your child’s brain.
If you choose games wisely, monitor the amount of time spent playing, engage in the play, and watch for signs that tell you your child is over-stimulated, your child can learn, grow, and benefit from playing video games.
Learn more about author Leigh Baker, Psy.D.