« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Tracy Frank, Published July 22 2013

Good gaming: Video games can have positive impact on kids, experts say

FARGO – Sometimes Kelly Olson lets her kids play video games all day long.

Sometimes, but not all the time, cautions The Village Family Service Center regional program director in children’s services.

“There are some days I want to read or watch a movie all day long,” Olson said. “They need a break, too, especially when they go to school and people are constantly structuring their environment. They should have a time in their day when they’re able to make a choice about what they want to do.”

Video games have been the topic of controversy, blamed for aggression, violence and problems with social development and addiction. But some researchers say those claims are unfounded, and there are actually benefits to gaming.

Christopher Ferguson is an author and associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University.

A while back he heard the effects of media violence were up there with smoking causing lung cancer.

“Being in social science, those are extreme claims to make,” he said.

So he started digging into the data. The more he dug, the more he noticed that the data didn’t really fit.

Blaming video games for problems in society “gives us an illusion of control over things we can’t control,” he said. “People like a bad guy – somebody that’s not them that’s responsible.”

But used in moderation, video games can actually be good for kids, Ferguson said. They tend to reduce stress, may improve hand-eye coordination and can be a way to socialize.

Kids talk about and play video games with their friends, and families use video games as a bonding activity.

Bonding time

Ferguson plays video games with his son and encourages other parents to do the same. It makes parents more credible if they decide to restrict a game and gives them the opportunity to talk about objectionable content that might come up, he said.

“That social time with your kids has more of an impact than the violence in a game,” he said.

Olson agrees there are benefits when gaming is done in moderation. Video games have taught her kids lessons about construction and Greek mythology. She’s also used them to connect with her kids.

“This is something that kids really like, so I think it’s our responsibility as parents to immerse ourselves in their world to see what it’s really about,” she said. “They don’t even realize they’re spending quality time with you because they’re playing a video game.”

A lot of fear of video games comes from a lack of knowledge, and becoming informed can put parents at ease, Ferguson said.

“People are worried about video games and violence, but what they don’t realize is youth violence has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years,” Ferguson said.

He’s not saying video games are responsible for the decline, but it does show that they can’t be blamed for an increase, either, he said.

Chris Frank, manager at Rock 30 Games in Fargo, said ratings systems are much better than they used to be. In addition to a rating, the type of content in a game is also listed.

Frank, who lives in Dilworth, has two boys who play video games. Gaming gives his sons, who are 14 and 6, something they can do together.

“It does bring a family together,” he said. “It’s a big misconception that it’s a waste of time.”

Disputing claims

Children spend an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy says studies have shown excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. It recommends parents limit entertainment media to no more than one or two hours a day.

But Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of the book, “Free to Learn,” said he could never find any solid research to back up the academy’s statements.

Gray has researched the value of children’s play on all aspects of their development and is concerned that there’s been a tremendous decline in children’s freedom to play, especially their freedom to play outside with other kids, he said.

Some say kids aren’t playing outside because of video games, but what Gray has found is that kids would rather play outside with other kids. The problem is parents are afraid to let them play outside, and even when they do, the kids aren’t finding other kids with which to play, Gray said.

“Children are not allowed to walk to the corner grocery store, but they can play video games and enter into all kinds of adventures in the virtual world,” he said, adding that gaming has become a sort of substitute play.

Gray observes children in a radically alternative school, where students play video games as part of the curriculum. He said they’re learning reading, writing, math and social skills by playing video games.

“There’s a lot of complex mental activity and calculation going on in these games,” he said.

Parents may worry their kids play too many video games, but Gray said it’s better to make sure they have other options, such as playing outside with other kids.

He also says it’s important children be allowed to make choices for themselves.

Gray says kids know instinctively what they must learn to succeed in life. Since the computer is the most important tool of modern society, they gravitate to it.

“Our limiting kids’ computer time would be like hunter-gatherer adults limiting their kids’ bow-and-arrow time,” he wrote in a blog post on http://psychologytoday.com.

Giving kids choices also teaches them life lessons, said Olson, of The Village. If they get a headache from gaming too long, they learn there are consequences.

Even in families where structure is needed because of a disability, over-structuring the child’s activities can lead to a decrease in progress, she said.

Over the last 50 or 60 years, we’ve increasingly become a society where parents feel it’s their job to control their children’s activities and there’s been a continuous erosion of children’s freedom, Gray said.

Part of it is the increasing pressures of school expectations and homework levels, he said. Another issue is the constant messages parents receive to make sure kids are learning what they need to learn, he said.

“There are too many experts in the world telling parents what to do and all the fears and dangers in the world,” Gray said. “The result is, parents have this extraordinary concern that they are negligent if they just let their kids go out and play. Kids don’t have the freedom that they used to have.”

Gray says the reason children are not as emotionally resilient today, suffer from anxiety and depression, and have higher suicide rates is because they are not learning how to be independent and take control of their own lives.

“They feel like victims of the world around them and don’t have the capability of solving their own problems,” he said.

Gray cautions that some research suggests a minority of gamers play compulsively, and in those cases, the video games are often substituting something that is missing in their lives.

Someone who is bullied in school and has no friends might play video games all the time because he is accepted in that realm and doesn’t have many other options, Gray said.

“The problem there is how to solve the other problems in his life,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526