It's not just a game

As we head back to the beginning of a new school year, parents once again have to help their kids balance the obligations and joys that come with school, classes, homework, and extracurricular activities. While most of these tasks are familiar to parents, technology has added a new dimension -- thanks to everything from the iPod to videogames and internet surfing. Much as kids might complain when parents monitor their activities, research shows that adolescents clearly want their parents to be involved and assist them when they are trying to juggle school and play.

This is because kids know that self-monitoring can be difficult. Recent research has shown that the effects of extreme videogame playing, in particular, can be subtle and, yet, detrimental to youth's classroom productivity, attentiveness, focus, and satisfaction -- something that parents and kids are still not fully aware of. While there are a range of videogames, including some that are educational, fun, and academic, there are also many videogames that are extremely violent, aggressive, and sexually exploitive, much to the surprise of many parents.

Negative games, that promote aggressiveness ("points" for killing someone) and depict sexually exploitive images (mostly of females) are pervasive throughout the gaming world, and remain readily available to youngsters. Researchers Craig Anderson and colleagues at Iowa State University have consistently shown that high amounts of video game playing increases hyperactivity, unfortunately, and reduces attentiveness to details and information.

Further, research conducted by myself at the University of Maryland with doctoral students Alaina Brenick and Alexandra Henning, has shown that there is a fairly high acceptance of negative stereotypic images in videogames, and particularly by male adolescents. The more frequently adolescents play games, the less likely they are to be critical about the negative images.

What are parents to do? There are two important dimensions to consider when determining how to monitor children's videogame playing: (1) time spent playing, and (2) quality of the game. Even for games that are educational and fun (and these do exist!), children and adolescents should limit their time playing (30 minutes a day for children, and one hour a day for adolescents). This is because the time that they are playing these games is time that they are not interacting with peers, getting physical activity, or getting school work done, all essential components for the healthy development of youth.

Regarding the quality of the games, parents need to open their eyes and watch the games that their children are playing. They should examine the content of the games, and what's involved. Many of the games involve horrific violence; repeated exposure to this content has short-term and long-term negative consequences. It's not enough to hear that "my friends all play it!" Their friends probably do play the videogames -- but that does not make it a positive experience for American youth.

How to approach kids? We recommend that parents engage in a discussion with their children and adolescents about videogame use. Taking an authoritarian stance in which rules are laid down with no explanations usually results in kids sneaking around and playing games outside of the home. Instead, help children to be discerning and discriminating, and educate them indirectly about the content, and the consequences. Ask kids to explain the content, the goals, and the aims of the games. Then, use the opportunity to talk about the content, whether it should be changed, whether there are negative consequences, and how much they believe it influences their own behaviour and attitudes.

In a recent study by the University of Maryland, adolescents were asked about the consequences of videogame playing. One adolescent stated that while the violent images were "...bad and not what I'd want my younger brother to see, it's OK for me because I'm not going to go out and kill someone tomorrow." This view reflects a very literal interpretation of what it means to be affected by video game-playing. In fact, studies have shown that videogame playing increases hyperactivity and compulsivity, implicit aspects of behaviour that may not be readily apparent to the player.

There are two general guidelines to keep in mind: (1) explicit consequences are not the only negative consequences that can occur; and (2) adolescents know that parental guidelines are helpful. Parents need to find a compromise regarding the amount of time playing, and then provide videogames that are cognitively beneficial rather than socially destructive. The juggling act is soon here; helping adolescents to divide their time efficiently, and to find a balance between school work, play, friends, and physical activity is a challenge but is an important recipe for healthy social and intellectual development.

Melanie Killen is a Professor of Education in the Department of Human Development at the College of Education, University of Maryland.


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