When should children be allowed to play video games? This is a difficult question with which many parents struggle and can apply to many forms of technology (e.g., TV, computer, cell phones, iPods). Such issues will probably grow thornier as technology advances and becomes even more ubiquitous.
As a kid, I grew up playing video games – from Pong onward. I’ve always both enjoyed and been fascinated by them. I even did my dissertation research on the effects of video game violence on kids. So, I have a lot of knowledge about this topic given that I’m a life-long gamer, a psychologist who has researched their effects, and, now, a parent of two boys.
First off, video games are not inherently good or bad – they are just a medium, like TV, books, the Internet, and so on. They should not be categorically vilified. Like movies and books, there are games that educate and enlighten and there are games that pander to our primitive fascination with sex and violence.
There is very little research on the effects of these games on very young children, and that research is correlational as it would unethical to randomly assign 2-year-olds to either playing video games 2 hours per day or none at all. Exposing kids to violent video games as part of a research experiment is, of course, out of the question. However, I have heard of very young kids, even infants, being exposed to games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Halo. I know for a fact that some kids as young as age 3 are even playing such games.
TV, Video Games, and ADD/ADHD
The brains of young children are developing rapidly and there is some research to suggest that exposure to highly stimulating media, such as TV, might “wire” the brains of young children such that they grow accustomed to intense environments. Such children might become bored and inattentive when in less stimulating (or traditional) environments – like listening to a teacher give a lecture in class. So, there is a hypothesis (and some correlational research to support) that children exposed to TV at young ages are more likely to be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD when they become older. If you’ve watched some of those Baby Einstein videos, you know what I mean! The correlational finding between TV viewing at young ages and ADD/ADHD would likely apply to video games as well.
Video Games as a Brain Booster?
Looking at things from a different perspective, the research on neuroplasticity indicates that the brain really is like a muscle in that it can grow in response to stimuli. Video games contain rich environments with many complex cognitive challenges that give brains quite a workout. There is a growing body of research to support that video game play improves cognitive functioning in many areas. Video or computer games are listed as one of 6 known “brain boosters” in the Feb/Mar 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind. Indeed, Microsoft is looking into the educational benefits of typical video games.
On a related note, if I have to choose between my child watching Tom & Jerry or playing Super Mario Galaxy, I encourage him to play a video game because I think is a better workout for his brain than the passive experience of TV viewing.
Given that I grew up playing computer games, playing video games with my oldest son has been a dream come true in many ways. But it is also a Pandora’s Box. If I left it all up to him, he’d play video games until he passed out from exhaustion. Trying to set limits with him on gaming can sometimes be a challenge. My biggest problem now is that his 2-year-old brother wants to join in the fun, and it is even more difficult to keep him away from the TV & games. As parents of two or more kids know, it’s easier to set limits with the first child. Younger siblings always want to do what big brother or sister is doing.
A Few Practical Guidelines
There’s no clear answer to the question of you should allow your kids to play video games, but I would say it is better to err on the safe side with limited exposure to various forms of electronic media at very young ages (under 3) with gradually more access as children get older. Even then, you should monitor and limit your children’s exposure and check to ensure that the content is appropriate. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (esrb.org) is a great resource for that.
I think video games, like TV, should be viewed as a privilege and not a right. Thus, children can get their limited access to games (and TV) only after they’ve fulfilled other responsibilities (e.g., homework, chores). Also, you should consider establishing an aggregate “media time” limit such that TV, the computer (for recreation), and video games all fall under one cap. Within that time cap (e.g., an hour per day), kids can decide upon how they want to divvy up their time.
Perhaps most importantly, you should aim to serve as good role model for your children. If you are trying to limit your child’s game time, but then you are always on your laptop, watch a lot of TV or keep it on for background noise, or play a lot of video games yourself, what do you expect your child will want? On the other hand, if you are active in sports, go throw the ball with your kids, have many hobbies, read a lot, and so on, it will send a powerful message to your kids. Children often adopt the values of their parents for good or bad. By being mindful of that and setting a good example, you will likely help your child stay on a path for personal and academic success.