Children & Video Games: A Parents Guide

Children & Video Games: A Parents Guide

It begins early. With a plethora of video games and gaming systems aimed at children as young as two and three-years-old, and average screen times of preschool age children at well over the recommended limits. “A Common Sense Media Research Company” showed among families with children age 8 and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The percent of children with access to some type of “smart” mobile device at home (e.g., smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three-quarters (75%) of all children in just two years.

Having been in the field of early childhood education for many years, I’ve seen different generations of children with very different backgrounds come and go through my schools and I can say, unequivocally, that video games have a negative impact on preschool age children. Some people may feel that statement is controversial, that there are plenty of “educational” games and systems out there.. some may say that it’s a sign of the times and we live in a digital world and need to accept it. I will stand by my statement, though, for many reasons.

Developmental Psychologist and director of research for the National Institute of Media, Douglas A Gentile, Ph.D. wrote that among elementary and middle-school populations, girls play for an average of about 5.5 hours/week and boys average 13 hours/week. Playing games is not limited to adolescent boys. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that several companies are now designing video game consoles for preschoolers. Preschoolers aged two to five play an average of 28 minutes/day. The amount of time spent playing video games is increasing, but not at the expense of television viewing which has remained stable at about 24 hours/week.

Similar to earlier studies about television, the data about children’s video game habits are correlated with risk factors for health and with poorer academic performance. When video game play is analyzed for violent content, additional risk factors are observed for aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence.

Video games are natural teachers. Children find them highly motivating; by virtue of their interactive nature, children are actively engaged with them; they provide repeated practice; and they include rewards for skillful play. These facts make it likely that video games could have large effects, some of which are intended by game designers, and some of which may not be intended.

Simply put, the amount of time spent playing video games has a negative correlation with academic performance. Playing violent games has a positive correlation with antisocial and aggressive behavior (most researchers define violence in games as when the player can intentionally harm other characters in the game). Content analyses show that a majority of games contain some violence. A majority of 4th to 8th grade children prefer violent games.

The research also seems to show that parents have an important role to play. Children whose parents limited the amount of time they could play and also used the video game ratings to limit the content of the games have children who do better in school and also get into fewer fights. Regarding limiting the amount, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children not spend more than one to two hours per day in front of all electronic screens, including TV, DVDs, videos, video games (handheld, console, or computer), and computers (for non-academic use). This means seven to fourteen hours per week total. The average school-age child spends over 37 hours a week in front of a screen. We all like to think our children are above average, but on this dimension it’s not a good thing. Regarding content, educational games are likely to have positive effects and violent games are likely to have negative effects. Almost all (98%) of pediatricians believe that violent media have a negative effect on children.

My personal (non medical) observation has been that when young children spend significant amounts of time in front of complex and fast moving digital images, that it seems to almost rewire their brains. They become use to the fast-paced, instant reactions and intense imagery and then have a difficult time transitioning into normal activities because they are still firing neurologically like the games. This causes an inability to sit still, to concentrate, to pay attention. I would not be surprised if video games have an impact on ADHD type symptoms. There have been surprisingly little research done on the relationship between the two, considering the common sense link that can be made, although neuroscientist Susan Greenfield of Oxford University said, “Our brains—or worse, children’s brains—could be rewired from the fast pace of modern social networking sites, TV shows, and video games.” 

I would definitely keep all young children off video games and limit older children to short and infrequent stints. There are too many digital distractions saturating our lives as it is. It is up to us as parents and educators to do our part in trying to balance it out.

About the Author: Genevieve

As the current Owner & Executive Director of 4 preschool centers, Genevieve has over 20 years experience in early childhood education as well as almost a decade of work in the fields of sustainability and green business. Genevieve has always carried an eco-conscious approach to life and shares those imperative philosophies with the children she teaches. She continues her work with Origins Education, combining her passion for children, her expertise in early childhood education and her knowledge of the principles of sustainability and the new economy movement. Origins Education’s goal is help foster a generation of young people committed to enhancing the health and wealth of their own communities and ecosystems, to nurture a sense of caring for the Earth and all its inhabitants and to support a lifestyle grounded in an Earth and human-centered ethic.

Genevieve King