Video Games: Good or Bad?

Published 7:29 pm Saturday, February 21, 2015

Video games get a bad rap, but most kids play them anyway. Although we now advise parents to limit all electronic time to two hours per day, some parents question this rule. After all, not all games are alike. What if a preschooler’s favorite tablet app teaches him to count? What about computer games that encourage complex problem-solving skills? Or, how about action-packed console games that make kids get up and dance or move around?

Many parents believe their children benefit from educational or intellectually challenging electronic games. Now, a new study suggests they might be on to something. While older research indicated video games may cause problems such as aggression or poor social skills, many of those studies were small, with inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, findings.

Unlike the previous studies, this new study used a more comprehensive approach to gathering data. The author sampled a much larger group, then examined multiple factors, including total play time, desktop computer vs. console play and players’ social activities and life satisfaction. Results were more complex than those found in previous studies, suggesting that one blanket rule may not be as useful as we thought.

Instead of a simple, direct connection in which more game time equaled more problems, this study found more intricate relationships among the variables. For example, kids who played a little bit (less than one hour daily) actually had better social functioning, felt happier and showed fewer emotional problems than kids who didn’t play any electronic games. On the other hand, heavy players, those who played more than three hours per day, had more emotional problems and poorer social functioning than non-players. Interestingly, kids who played a moderate amount — that is, between one and three hours daily, appeared no different from kids who didn’t play any games.

Overall, then, the results suggest that limited electronic game play may offer some benefits over none at all, just as kids benefit from other activities such as board games, pretend play and sports. After a point, though, increasing electronic playtime is associated with more negative outcomes, but a child would likely have similar problems if they focused on any other single activity too much.

While we hope to offer parents more specific recommendations as this line of research progresses, for now, the only “official” guideline is to limit all electronics to no more than two hours per day. Fortunately, most professionals recognize that this one-size-fit-all approach doesn’t capture the nuances involved. Obviously, educational, age-appropriate games are more likely to be beneficial, especially when used in moderation and in combination with a broad variety of other play and learning activities. Similarly, games with highly sexual or extremely violent content are more likely to be harmful, even if kids don’t play them very much.

As with all things, parents must use common sense when making rules, and be involved enough to know what kids are doing. From this study, it appears the current two-hour maximum is about right, but here are some tips to help your kids get the most from that time.

First, check game content and use the rating system to make sure they fit your child’s developmental level. Then, occasionally play the games with your kids and talk to them about their play. Discuss how to solve the game’s challenges and why specific scenarios or choices might not make sense in the real world. Finally, help children understand the potential negative effects of spending too much time wrapped up on one type of play, and pay attention to any changes in mood and social behaviors your child exhibits around electronic game play.

Used properly, video games can be just as helpful in growing a healthy brain as are other types of play. They’re here to stay, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, the new research suggests we can teach kids how to use them constructively instead of banishing them altogether.

Tamara Stevens, MA, LPA, HSP-PA, is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 946-4134.