Video Games - Friend Or Foe?

We often hear about the negative side of gaming, and while there are important issues to consider, there are also many benefits.

In case you were in any doubt, gaming is hugely popular. Recent figures show the vast majority of children use some kind of gaming device. And of course, the variety of games and ways to play them today is huge – from portable hand-held consoles (such as the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP) to consoles you plug in to your TV (Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3), games on mobile phones and via apps, on computers and via the web.

But should parents be worried about the rise in gaming? Certainly, some fairly negative research and views have been reported in the press – including possible increased aggression from playing video games, addiction, attention issues and fatigue. Yet we also know that video games can be a positive experience for the whole family. So how do you help your children get the best from gaming?

Gaming issues unravelled
Many parents think their children play video games too often - but this could be just because it’s not something they did as a child.

“As a rough guide, for children under eight, it’s best that they don’t play for more than an hour or two a day,” says Prof Mark Griffiths, chartered psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. But if your older child is playing games for around three or four hours a day, and still has time to do her homework, chores and has lots of outside activities, that’s ok.”

It seems the key to playing in moderation is to make sure your children have plenty of other activities to pursue in their free time, besides playing video games. “We know the more negative consequences of playing video games involve children who are excessive users,” says Mark. “A small number are affected and the effects tend to stop once they stop playing so much.”

As for children having a true ‘addiction’ to playing video games, Mark says it is possible, but very rare. “In my experience, while all video game addicts are excessive players, not all excessive players are addicts.” If you’re concerned about the risk of increased aggression from video games, you can breathe a sigh of relief – for now anyway. The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) says there is no conclusive evidence directly linking violence in individuals to the games they play. “But as a responsible parent, you wouldn’t want to let your nine-year-old play Grand Theft Auto,” says Mark. “There’s no evidence as yet looking at such effects on children in the long term, but there are decisions you can make as a socially responsible parent.”

He recommends choosing age-appropriate games that are fun. There are lots of good educational games, for example.

Protect family time
Gaming can certainly eat into family time. In a recent report by child psychologist Dr Pat Spungin, 86 per cent of mums agreed that technology, including video games, has had an impact on the quality time they spend with their kids – for example, if children spend long hours playing, don’t eat with the family or if they play late at night and are tired the next morning.

One way to protect family time is to eat together as a family as often as possible. “Make sure your children keep game consoles or phones away from the table, so you can eat and talk together,” says Pat. “And on long journeys, don’t let all your kids ‘plug-in’ to their devices the whole way. Spend some time talking and observing.”

The benefits
There is a plus side – played responsibly and in moderation, “video games can provide educational, social and therapeutic benefits,” says Mark. “Since the early 80s, research has consistently shown playing computer games can increase reaction times, improve hand-eye co-ordination and raise self-esteem. Video games can also provide elements of interactivity that may stimulate learning.”

Video games can even help bring the family together. “People were originally afraid of how TV would affect the family, yet it’s provided conversation and shared interests – families can watch together and get involved,” says Pat. “The same can be true for video games. Arrange a family games night and set each other challenges. Look for games you can all play together rather than allow yourself to be excluded.” Kids can even get some exercise while gaming. There’s been a growth in game consoles and games which involve being active – Nintendo (Wii), Sony (PlayStation Move for PlayStation 3) and Microsoft (Kinect for Xbox 360) offer systems that involve moving the body while playing.

 

What parents can do

  1. Control what your children play
    This is easier than you may imagine. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony consoles, as well as Windows, offer parental controls to help you control what your kids play and how long for. Apple’s operating system iOS (for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) also allow restrictions. Visit www.ukie.org.uk/playsafe for more information. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft also have advice on their websites.
     
  2. Check the rating
    Games published in the UK have an age rating on the packaging, as well as a set of icons indicating the type of content - such as violence, bad language and fear.
     
  3. Follow good screen habits
    Experts advise playing in a well-lit room, keeping a minimum distance from the screen, and not playing when tired. If your children are playing too much, set time limits. Encourage your child to take regular breaks from the screen of at least five minutes every 45 to 60 minutes, advise UKIE.
     
  4. Chat to your kids
    “Talk about the content of the games so that kids understand the difference between make-believe and reality,” says Mark.
     
  5. Be online savvy
    Games are increasingly played online. It can be fun and social, but it also means online safety measures apply. For example, tell your child to be careful with their personal information.

It seems it’s more a case of monitoring your child’s game playing to help avoid the potential downsides, rather than gaming being downright bad. So swot up, and enjoy.

Words: Aviva Ingram


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