I’m aware this is a high-risk topic for someone who’s not themselves a parent, but there are children within my circle of family and friends, and many of their parents worry about the effect of videogames on their children. The perception, as promulgated by many newspapers and a few politicians, is that they’re almost all violent and a major cause of society’s moral decline.
I don’t believe this is true. In fact, I think they’re used as a scapegoat (and to sell papers) in the same way that movies and comics were blamed in previous generations.
The research I’ve done has helped me to put together answers to some of the most common worries, as fostered by the likes of the Daily Mail. My views have been influenced and sharpened by the book Grand Theft Childhood, written by doctors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, who are based in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and are on the psychiatry faculty at Harvard Medical School. Dr Kutner is the author of several books on child psychology and they both write columns on parenting in various magazines and newspapers. For more detail on the statistics and details of surveys undertaken, as well as a fascinating look at the failed attempts at US state legislation to ban games, I encourage you to read the book. Some of my research has also come from last year's British Board of Film Classification survey regarding playing videogames. However, I wrote the piece myself and take full responsibility for it.
Before getting into the list, my first piece of advice would be to check the age rating of the game your child wants to play, along with the content descriptors on the box. If you need more detailed information on the content, then try some of the in-depth review websites (see the list of links on the right) or the excellent What They Play, a site designed for parents. These will give you a good idea what “violence” or “bad language” might mean in the context of a particular game.
Of course you can only do so much. Even if you ban your child from playing a game, they may well find a way to do it without your knowledge. I certainly managed to watch plenty of X-rated horror films before the age of eighteen. This being the case, it’s best to be prepared.
1. Won’t it make them solitary zombies with no real-life friends?
Playing games actually helps children socialize with one another, gives them a common topic to talk about. It can also be a sociable activity in itself, since kids play with others more often than than alone. Children who don’t play videogames may end up feeling left out.
2. It’ll fry their brains!
There’s no evidence for this. Some games have been known to provoke epileptic attacks, and so all games are thoroughly tested for this side effect. There is evidence, on the other hand, that it helps not just hand–eye coordination, but spatial awareness and decision-making. Many games involve reading and sometimes even writing skills. Whatever the game, it’s a lot more demanding than watching TV.
3. Playing violent games will make them act violently.
There’s no evidence for this either. For children to act aggressively in a game is normal and doesn’t mean they’ll be aggressive as adults. In a playground scrap when we were both seven years old, I pinched a classmate’s hand so hard I gave her a scar (and she made me feel terrible about it for the next eleven years of school). That was the last time I injured anyone intentionally, though.
What games can do is allow kids to explore boundaries and different types of behaviour in a safe, non-threatening environment.
Experiencing or witnessing real-life violence in the home is far more likely to have a negative effect on a child’s wellbeing and attitude towards violence.
4. They are obsessed, it’s the first thing they do when they get home from school.
Playing videogames is one of the ways children help themselves cope with stress, in the same way that you might crash out in front of the TV or soak luxuriously in the bath. On the other hand, if they’re generally subdued and don’t want to do anything but play games, it might indicate something else is going on in their lives that might be affecting them.
Playing games is no more addictive than reading. Being absorbed by whatever they’re doing and not wanting to stop for dinner is normal behaviour for children and teenagers. Whether it’s reading or listening to music or playing games, so long as it’s not the only way they spend their leisure time, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
5. I just don’t understand the appeal.
So join in! You child would probably love to explain their game to you. Be interested and be brave. You can always watch until you feel confident enough to use a controller. Just think how cool it is for your child to teach you something, instead of being the one who’s always told what to do.
Thanks for reading. Feedback, especially from parents, is much appreciated – leave a comment.
Next time: some recommended games for kids.