Friday, January 20, 2017

Looking Beyond the Headlines: Video Games and Children's Behavior

There are so many things to worry about as a parent--is my child eating healthily, is he/she developing well, am I letting her watch too much TV, etc. The list could go on for miles.

In recent years, one topic that has dominated many media headlines is that of the impact of video games on children and teens' behavior. You hear stories of isolated teens who spend most of their time play games and have few friends. These images often portray gamers as socially inept, isolated and sometimes the victim of bullies.

Is there any truth to these images? Are they just stereotypes promoted by the media or are video games really detrimental to our children's well-being?


Video Games and Children's Behavior

As with any complex topic like this, there are never easy answers. In this case, however, we do have quite a bit of research from which to pull to help answer these questions.

Luckily, I did not have to dig up all this research myself.  Psychologist, Dr. Rachel Kowert, a specialist in video game research, has done the work for me in her new book, A Parent's Guide to Video Games.

I just finished reading the book and it was very helpful in understanding this topic. The book is definitely written with parents in mind. It offers a clear, concise review of the research but in a way that is quick to read and easy to understand the "take away" messages for parents.

The book covers all the main topics that we as parents have questions about regarding video games:

  • Can video games be addictive?
  • Is there a link between video game play and aggression?
  • What is the impact of video games on cognitive development?
  • What is the impact of video games on physical and mental health?
  • Is there a link between video game play and sexist attitudes?
  • What are the social outcomes for kids who play video games?
  • Are there any positive learning outcomes for kids who play video games?


As with all social science research, video game research is complex and there are often nuanced findings that can be hard to figure out. Additionally, research on this topic is relatively new, given the constantly changing technology and gaming industry. However, Dr. Kowert compiled all the latest research, even those studies that are compilations of others studes (i.e., meta-analyses).

I won't go into all the topics here, however, what parents should know is that the media portrays of isolated, aggressive teens who play video games and become social outcasts is largely a misrepresentation. The research outlined in the book offers little evidence of a relationship between video games and violent behavior, lack of social skills or declines in cognitive skill.

In fact, some video games have the potential to enhance skills like leadership ability (through online cooperation) and problem-solving. 

As with any technology, video games have their pros and cons. Some video games have been shown to promote sexist beliefs, at least in the short-term. However, long-term research does not seem to support any changes in attitude over time.

I encourage you to check out A Parent's Guide to Video Games if you want to delve deeper into the effects of video games on kids.

While this issue is important, for me it brings to mind the larger issues at hand. What does it mean for us to be parenting our children in an era so consumed by media and technology.

Dimitri Christakis, a leading researcher in the field, makes the distinction "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." Today's generation of children are considered digital natives because they were born after the influx of modern digital technology (e.g., email, internet, iPhones, etc.) so they have never known a world without these inventions. We (and older generations), on the other hand, are digital immigrants because we only came to experience the internet and related technology as adults. In a sense, it is our role as parents to guide our children through a media landscape that we ourselves did not experience as children. 

These "digital native" children are often more adept at the new technology than we are, but one thing we as adults are more skilled at (hopefully) is self-regulation. We know how to regulate our use of technology so that we turn it off if it is distracting us from our task at hand or causing other problems. Children, on the other hand, are not usually very skilled in self-regulation at an early age. 

Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with this type of multi-tasking, media immersion. Isn't this type of immersion going to prepare children for the work world they will face in the future? Multi-tasking is the name of the game in the business world, right? While I know that this type of technology multi-tasking is commonplace, I think something is lost in the blur of constant noise (not to mention that research shows multi-tasking to be ineffective).

Regardless of one's religious/spiritual beliefs, I think almost everyone recognizes the need for silence in their lives. Time for reflection, thinking about decisions, beliefs, etc. It is increasingly difficult to find this type of silence in our media-laden world. It has become very difficult to find time to disconnect from all our technological devices long enough to focus on our inner thoughts. 


To me, this is the real concern with technology--it acclimates kids at a fast-paced mindset that is just unnecessary at a young age. Soon enough they will be inundated with media images, video games, etc., why not let young kids enjoy the simple, slow pace of childhood.

Just as important, we want our children to find and pursue their interests and passions in life--to find something that they really love to do. I feel it's hard to get in touch with this if you are always connected to some type of media or device and do not allow time for silence.

I can already tell that raising "digital natives" will have its challenges. Finding the balance between using technology for productivity, education, and entertainment without having it consume my children's lives will be difficult at times. Personally, my goal is to help my sons learn to use technology effectively at each age, but also learn how to turn it off and enjoy the silence.
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