If you’re a parent, you’ve probably worried about video games at some point — if you should allow them, limit them, or seriously fret about them overpowering other parts of your child’s life.
Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, feels your pain. Doan is an addiction researcher, staff ophthalmologist for the Naval Medical Center San Diego, and father of three. He’s also a recovering video-game addict with a unique insight into parenting children growing up in a digital world.
“Our electronic dependence and the great number of hours spent playing video games are causing declines in face-to-face communication skills and physical development,” Dr. Doan says. This is most concerning for children who haven’t mastered these skills and development.
Doan, who stresses that his opinions are his own and not that of the Navy, speaks publically about video gaming, primarily to mental health providers such as the American Psychological Association. He’s written a book, Hooked on Games: The Lure and Cost of Video Game Addiction, and shares his personal story of compulsive gaming. To help reach the average parent, he’s also produced several YouTube videos. He shares some thoughts about what can happen with excess video gaming.
But Doan also notes some good news for folks worried about daily video gaming among the young: Moderation seems to be everything, according to some recent studies about youth video gaming, which is pervasive and crosses gender and socioeconomic categories.
A Measured Approach to Video-Game Control
A 2014 study that examined surveys of 5,000 British boys and girls age 10 to 15 years old concluded that students who played video games one hour or less daily experienced some benefit from it. They were reported to be better-adjusted and satisfied with social relationships and life than were those who didn’t play video games.
However, the youths who played more than three hours daily reported less happiness and more problems in general. This research was published in August 2014 in the journal Pediatrics and was led by Oxford University’s Andrew Przybylski, PhD, of the Oxford Internet Institute.
Dr. Przybylski says many reasons may contribute to the findings. “Being engaged in video games may give children a common language, and for someone who is not part of this conversation, this might end up cutting the young person off,” he told the BBC. Research on electronic media and video is relatively new and more is needed, he stressed, but as parents set family rules and limits on all technology, the one-hour-a-day finding should be noted. Although the study was statistically important, Przybylski said, family relationships and strong bonds there are still more influential on a student’s well-being.
Weighing the Gaming Factors
The key to video gaming seems to be balance, moderation of time spent on the games, and the social aspects of gaming with others. A study by the Knight Family Foundation called an hour or less of video gaming a day to be low use, 1 to 3 hours daily as moderate use, and more than 3 hours a day as high video-game use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents restrict video gaming to less than two hours daily and set clear rules and curfews on all devices.
Doan, a recovering video-game addict, is still able to have gaming in his house and participates with his children from time to time. But any time the gaming interrupts his relationships or goals, he stops playing.
He stresses that he’s not trying to rid the world of video games but to help people understand why moderating use is best for child development. His own kids have flip phones with no Internet, their monthly texting is limited, and all of their video gaming must involve multiple players and physical movement. In public speaking to parents and teachers, Doan explains the impact of excessive video gaming.
Hand Analogy to Gaming
“Children, like all human beings, practice who they want to become, and everyone must be careful what they practice and how they program their own brains,” Doan says. “When a young child spends too much time on gaming or Internet activities, there can be significant problems.” He proposes this analogy to portray how a child’s nervous system may develop when exposed to excessive time engaged in these activities:
“Observe your left hand. The thumb will represent the cortical areas associated with all the benefits of video gaming: quick analytical skills, improved hand-eye-coordination, and perhaps improved reflexes,” Doan says. “The index finger will represent the cortical areas associated with communication skills. The middle finger will represent behaviors associated with social bonding with family and friends. The ring finger will represent the capacity to recognize emotions of both self and others (empathy). Lastly, the little finger will represent the cortical areas associated with self-control.”
“These higher executive functions are all learned behaviors, requiring time and practice. When a child spends an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes in front of a digital screen for entertainment media (be it TV, computer, phone or tablet), the child is exposed to 7 times the recommended daily dosage for healthy screen time,” Doan says, citing a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Doan uses the hand metaphor to make a conclusion about video gaming. “Folding the fingers into the palm of your hand represents this situation. As the brain matures, the end product is a young adult who’s all thumbs in their thinking: possessing quick analytical skills and quick reflexes, but lacking in communication skills, having few bonds with people, exhibiting little empathy, and showing minimal self-control,” he says.
Doan cites this Kaiser Family Foundation research which found that about two-thirds of children age 8 to 18 had no video gaming restrictions on time or game type from their parents. Doan suggests that parents look closely at when and how much their children are playing video games (versus “studying” on the computer) and be mindful of the games they’re playing. One of the more popular online video games for some age groups is solitaire, which is a traditional game and may indicate a simple wish for a mental break — in moderation.