Educator Howard Eaton was asked, "how are video games impacting my child's future? My teenager spends an average of about two hours a day playing video games, but at times has spent as much as seven hours a day. Is there hope for teenagers who spend hour after hour playing video games?" Here is his answer, an answer parents with kids who love video games won't want to miss:
I had been informed that Mr. and Mrs. Davis wanted to see me about a concern of theirs. Their son Adam attended our school, in Grade 7. I walked to the reception area and greeted them. They both seemed to be in a good mood. But, when we got to my office and I shut the door, Mr. Davis looked at me and with a high level of frustration in his voice and said, “I want my child’s inborn talent nourished. Not wasted on Angry Birds! He spends hours launching birds at pigs.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Mrs. Davis smiled, too, but not Mr. Davis.
Well, as you might have guessed, Mr. Davis’ son, Adam, was playing a lot of Angry Birds. Mr. Davis was not upset at me, as we have a no video gaming policy at school. Rather, he was annoyed with his son and needed advice. He wanted to know how they could stop him or the birds.The video game had been installed Adam’s desktop, laptop, iPhone and iPad.
Video games are extremely successful dopamine releasing reward systems. In fact, neurologists have recommended that education look into the design of video games to improve learning at the classroom level. Dopamine is often released in the child's brain when they successfully achieve a level within the video games. This in turn makes them want to achieve a higher level of accomplishment in the video game. There needs to be challenge after challenge in order for video games to have that addictive quality. Most children and parents do not fully understand the neurochemical process of video gaming. What they do know is that their child is playing the video game repetitively and frequently.
I listened to Mr. Davis contemplating a response to the Angry Birds issue. Strangely, my mind also went to another issue we had with a girl in Grade 7 at our school. The parents' concern was that she was reading too much and not socializing. Yes, reading too much. She had a nonverbal learning disability making it frustrating for her to make sense of social situations. I wondered why I was making this association between Angry Birds and reading. Is it all about doing too much of something? Is this what concerns us as parents? Maybe, but with video gaming there is also the violence issue.
Though violence is not absent from literature as a teenager could be reading The Hunger Games.
For Mr. Davis, it was Adam doing too much of something, and not the birds being violent towards pigs. Though, I do think there are three fundamental issues that parents struggle with when it comes to video gaming: 1) too much or addiction, 2) value of the video game to their child's future and 3) exposure to violence or aggression. Let’s start with too much or addiction.
When is something being done too much? How much video gaming is enough? This is what Mr. Davis was seeking an answer to. Or…was it?
I know that I often ask myself if my children’s video gaming activity is useful or productive. I find myself saying, “Isn’t there something else you could be doing?” You see, I don’t have any interest in video gaming. None. No interest. I can’t understand how it could be at all interesting. I then expand my remarkable reasoning by saying to myself, “What a waste of time.” I put my own need for valuing your time with productive activities onto my children and then judge for them what is a productive use of time. Simple. I know best, right?
But what does this issue have to do with productive use of time? I was previously discussing how much video gaming was healthy, before it becomes an addiction. However, I think as parents we are not just talking about how much, but our need to judge whether or children are being productive with their time. The readers question was, "How are video games impacting my child's future?" This relates to the next point: the value of the video game to their child's future.
Tell your child how video games work in the brain
We want our children to use their time wisely. For example, we would rather than spend three hours doing homework and preparing for exams than spend three hours on Call Of Duty. In reality, we also need to value their fun or entertainment time. Parents should take this into consideration when analyzing their feelings and needs regarding their children’s video game use. I know I spent countless hours finding ways to entertain myself with fun as a child and teenager. Space Invaders and Tetris were my specialty. Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in The Tipping Point that it takes 10,000 hours of repetitive practice to become an expert in a specific skill. With this in mind, I was likely an expert at Tetris. Less so with Space Invaders.
What do my kids think about their video gaming? For them, it is fun and entertaining. It is not about their future. My nine-year-old girl said to me, “Dad, it is just fun.”
Though both my teenage boys added that not only is it fun, but also a stress reliever. Stress? What stress does a teenager have? How easily we all forget.
Peer pressure, homework, and dealing with parents are all major stressors for the teenager. I guess they need ways to escape or relax as well. My children have other activities to relieve stress like soccer, swimming, gymnastics, and photography. Thus, video gaming is one option for them among others. This is something all parents should keep in mind. Increasing options for fun and entertainment beyond just video gaming.
Certainly, how much one plays a particular video game needs to be monitored by a parent. There is no doubt that balance needs to be considered. Young children should be out in the natural world as often as possible. Of course, the natural world benefits us all and balance is important in all our lives.
Young children should also be engaged in 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity a day. This is so important for the brain and body. Parents also need to spend as much time with their child, playing and communicating as possible. As well, parents need to talk to their young children about being aware or mindful of how much one is playing video games. Due to the dopamine reward nature of video gaming a child can easily get lost in time and a couple of hours seems like minutes. Discuss with your child how video games work in the brain and why they are so difficult to stop once engaged.
For the teenager, there are video games that require critical thinking/reasoning like Portal and Portal 2 with minimal violence. For example, if you don't make a jump correctly your character falls to their death. Also, strategy games like Age of Empires require strategic planning and resource management with minimal violence. For example, you might have armies clashing with each other. Though, there is no close up violence as in first person shooter games. The Sims series is popular with some teenagers as well. The Sims series is a life simulator. You monitor your social relationships and careers. Sim City is a video game that gets the teenager thinking about city planning, building and the economy of city populations.
Video games have been noted to have positive effects on the brain. Research is noting that video gamers can show improvement in visual-spatial awareness, attention, visual processing speed and multi-tasking. Thus, as children are playing video games their brains are certainly changing. Whether or not they will benefit from these neurological changes time will only tell. Their careers may benefit from having these improved neurological functions.
But, what about first person shooter games for teenagers like Call of Duty or Battlefield 3. I asked my 17-year-old son to give me some advice on this issue, video games and violence. He has been playing violent video games for some time. This of course, has concerned me and made me wonder what this activity is doing to his brain. He emailed me this response:
"Video games and children has been a somewhat controversial subject for some time now. Parents no doubt frequently ask themselves "should my child be playing this game?". As far as I'm concerned it all depends on the maturity level of the individual child. Does he/she understand the difference between the game and reality, and does he/she have a strong moral compass?
Now obviously your seven-year-old probably shouldn't be playing games such as Grand Theft Auto, but there are many age appropriate games for a seven-year-old! Games like the Mario series on the Wii or Minecraft on the PC can be a great source of fun and entertainment without violence. As a child gets older they will want to play more mature games. Chances are his/her friends are playing them and the child wants to join them, and it is up to the parents to decide is their child can handle it, and in most cases they probably can."
Aggression increases after violent video games
Wise advice from a 17 year old. Though, neuroscience research does show that the brain is quickly altered by playing violent video games. In one such study, the brain changes were apparent within one week of playing a shooter game for a total of 10 hours. These brain changes were related to ability to control cognitive flexibility and attention. Interestingly, the brain changed back to the original state after one week of not playing. The question then is long-term effective of hours upon hours of playing shooter video games. As well, neuroscience studies are showing increases in aggression after playing violent video games. You can read about these studies below as they are among the recommended articles.
This is certainly disconcerting insight into the brain and violent video gaming.
What did I say to Mr. and Mrs. Davis? What was my advice?
First, I stated that Adam's future was not in jeopardy. That children and adults can develop obsessions or passions from dinosaurs for children to red wine for the adult, and over time, these interests can die out. I told them about my Tetris fascination, which Mrs. Davis related to. We had a laugh.
I then asked how many hours a day did they think he was playing Angry Birds. I wanted to address the issue of how much. They estimated two hours a day. I told them that they should set their own boundaries, but that two hours a day of video gaming was not an unusual amount of time. The research is showing that children play video games on average 12 to 14 hours a week or close to 2 hours a day. Interestingly, one in ten of these children showed addictive behaviour to video games (10%). The addictive player was video gaming about 24 hours a week.
For Mr. Davis knowing that Adam was playing the average amount of video gaming compared to national norms was comforting. Mr. Davis looked at me and said, "I just don't like it."
I said, "Why not ask him to do something with you instead when you think he has had enough Angry Birds?"
Mr. Davis smiled for the first time and said, "My wife tells me that too."
Recommended articles on video gaming and the brain
The Dana Foundation - Video Games Affect The Brain: For Better and Worse
Psychology Today - Neuroscience Insights: Video Game and Drug Addiction
Science Daily - Violent Video Games Alter Brain Function in Young Men
Video Game Addiction - New Facts about Video Game Addiction: Problem More Widespread Than Expected
For more from the author about school and learning, please visit Howard Eaton's blog.
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