Video Games and Your Kids

Carrie: I am joined this week by Kim McDaniel, coauthor of Video Games and Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control. First I have to say that I think the book is fantastic. It should be required reading.

Kim: Thank you.

C: It’s a wonderful book. As we were chatting before, this is a topic that I feel strongly about. I’m so glad that you and Hilary Cash, with whom you wrote the book, put this information together in one easy volume so that parents can look at the research, and look at the science and the data, and make good choices about video games and their kids.

K: Absolutely. Parents want to make the best choices for their children, and they want their babies to grow up to be everything. The smartest, the best, really well rounded. Hilary and I are certainly concerned that video games are hurting our children’s development rather than helping them.

C: That’s definitely something that we want to hone in on and talk about. You are a licensed mental health counselor.

In your work, as you talk with parents and with young people, what have you found to be some of the concerns that are very legitimate that parents have with video games?

K: We initially see children that come in because of power struggles, where parents are seeing more anger with their children. Typically, that’s around age six, right as their entering the school system for many parents. We see kids coming with anger problems, and not being able to interact with their peers without some of the behaviors we see in a toddler. With the hitting, the kicking, the biting, not having the social skills to start Kindergarten.

As we started exploring this, we noticed that many of those kids were spending a lot of time with computers and hand held games, nintendos and playstations in their hands. They weren’t getting the social interaction that children need at that age. That was the first entry point, where we noticed young children having problems.

Christopher intent on winning
Creative Commons License photo credit: subewl

C: Is it mostly an issue that video games are replacing the time that would be spent in social interaction, or is there something else at play?

K: I think there are several things at play. One is that kids are missing out on social interaction, which is so important for them to be well rounded and be able to get by in the world and interact with their piers.

The other is that we are having some concerns about brain development of young children, when they’re playing the games.

There was a recent study out of the University of Washington, here, with Dr. Christakis, who showed that children who played the baby Einstein game had a deficit in their language skills, that verbally they don’t even have the vocabulary of kids who don’t play video games.

So we’re seeing effects on brain development. We’re also really curious to see what comes out of research in the future, because we see the surge in attention deficit disorder being diagnosed in young children at the same time that the gaming has become so popular. We’re really concerned about the wiring of the brain.

C: Something that you touched on in the book, speaking of ADD, parents are confused as to why a child who can’t sit still and focus on their studies can sit and play video games for hours on end. It seems to hold their attention. Can you explain what’s going on there?

K: It seems like a good thing to parents, because their child can actually sit and focus. They can sit and focus, but it’s just about the way the brain is stimulated with the images on the screen. You can use images like this in biofeedback to help children with attention deficit disorder slow down and become mindful of how to slow down, and be present in the world and listen to other people. But it’s almost like you put it on overdrive by over stimulating them on the computer because they don’t learn anything for it. Their brains are going fast when they’re on the computer playing games.

So while they look like they’re sitting still and they’re focused, their brains are going very fast. So it’s just a natural extension for their Attention Deficit Disorder. It gives it an avenue that’s appropriate, where they don’t get in trouble. But they’re going very fast in their heads when they’re playing these games. When that ball’s bouncing around on the screen, or whatever they’re trying to do, there’s a computer game and they’re trying to control it, they’re going very quickly, even though physically their body’s sitting still.

C: Hearing you explain that, a parent might think, “How is that a bad thing”?

One thing that I hear from parents is that “Computers are a part of our society, they’re part of our culture, and the earlier we start teaching them about these computers and skills, the better…”. People will look at a very young child who knows how to move a mouse around, and to them that’s impressive. Is that true? What are your thoughts on that?

K: Specifically for kids with attention deficit disorder, or just in general?

C: Just in general.

K: I think one of the problems is that computers seem to be benign, and we associate lots of good things with them for our children. When they do studies in the school district, what do we want to spend our money on? And they do surveys with parents, and usually technology is number one for parents. They want their children to be able to use computer systems, and they link intelligence to that in their mind, and that’s going to help their child do well in the world. To some extent that’s true. It’s great to be able to use the computer.

However, most schools do teach that, around grade Three, teaching kids how to use the computer. It’s just another skill that kids can learn in life. When we look at studies, especially the work of Dain Healey, that’s done some great writing on this about the impact of technology on our children, we see that it doesn’t make them any more intelligent, and it doesn’t make them better adjusted in the world. I think we all need to take a breath and step back, and look at introducing technology in a way that’s healthy for our kids. Most parents instinctively know when their kids have too much technology.

C: I believe that’s true and I believe that we have a gut reaction, and we aren’t even sure how to verbalize it. That’s why it’s good that we have books like this, because we can read a book like this and look at the research, and be able to have an intelligent argument about our own instinctive feelings. I think many parents feel that way. I know I do.

I was very adamant about the fact that I didn’t want to have a video game system in my home. I had to tustle a little bit with the man who’s now my ex husband. I went back and forth with him about it. I felt very strongly about it and he respected that.

But it turns out that my oldest son was given a Nintendo DS by his cousin, who’s his best friend. If it had been an adult I would have said we’re not comfortable with this, but because it was a child, I wasn’t comfortable with not accepting the gift. It’s brought an element into my home that I did not want to have. It’s brought pushing boundaries, hiding types of behavior, dishonesty, not respecting the limits.

That is one of the things that I’ve observed over and over in households, that the children can’t seem to respect the limits. They can’t seem to turn it off. That bothers me. What’s going on with a child that makes it so difficult for them to accept limits and boundaries around gaming?

K: That’s the part that Hilary and I would talk about as an addiction. As just that little tinge of the addictive behavior starting to show. We can see it in our kids, the look in their eyes when they’ve been gaming, or when they’ve been playing the game and then they look at you. They’re so irritable. . “Five more minutes, five more minutes.” They’re so irritable in their face and their eyes. You think “This can’t be healthy for my child.”

That’s where I am so important that we do set in those boundaries. What’s going on with them is just what the game manufacturers want to happen. The games are designed to be addictive. They pride themselves on what they call the sticky factor.

These games have all the things that addictive systems have. The intermittent reinforcement and fun things in there to keep us playing, and tuned in. They stimulate our brains, and the pleasure centers of the brain. Our kids are just responding the way they should respond, and it’s up to us as parents to do that limit setting, even though it’s so hard and challenging for us.

C: It’s interesting. I have heard parents express that they would be loath to take away the video game or the television set, because they use it as a punishing tool, they use it as a discipline tool. That’s kind of sad, but it’s an honest statement.

K: It is. I think I right in the book that taking away the Game Boy is just a new punishment. “If you’re good, you can have your Game Boy. If you’re not, we’ll take it away.”

You just said something else that’s really interesting, which is the disagreement on this issue between husbands and wives. I see that all the time. Many husbands, not to generalize, but many are very accepting of gaming in the home, and there are a lot of power struggles that go on between husbands and wives as to what’s an appropriate limit for my children. Women have that push back from their husband while they’re getting the push back from their children. It really puts you in a bind.

C: To me that’s easily explained. I think men are much more likely to become addicted to video games themselves. So they need to justify their own usage of games. They couldn’t very well set limits with their children when they have difficulty setting limits with themselves. To me, that’s what that’s all about. I’m pretty sure the research backs that up.

K: It does, and also the way we communicate, with women tending to be more verbal in the home. Gaming fits that model for boys and men where they can be non verbal and they can tune out. That isn’t helpful for us moms.

C: You made the statement that video games are designed to be addictive. It almost makes me think of credit card companies that want us to stay in debt, the way that they market, the way that they treat customers; it’s pretty obvious that their goal is to keep you in debt.

That’s kind of insidious, but it makes sense. How are you going to sell your product if it’s not effective, if it doesn’t make people want to continue to consume it and by more and more games, etc? I think that as parents we can’t have a Pollyanna attitude, we need to wake up and realize…

K: Yes. They collect information. The gaming manufacturers have a rating system, and they collect information like the Neilson ratings do for television shows, and they look for the stickiness factor in their games.

They’re keeping research and statistics on us, what keeps us playing, and a lot of the games for older kids that are online have subscription fees associated with them, so parents are paying $15 or $20 a month for their children to play “Lord Of The rings online”, or some of these online games It’s a big moneymaking industry, and I just hope that parents will look at that and be aware, make the choices for their children. We don’t think that games are bad, we just think that parents need all the information they can get to make those good choices.

C: Right. You also touched on the baby Einstein and the Brainy Baby games. At least one study has shown that these are not good for our babies. That’s something I’ve written about quite a bit on my blog, and it just seems totally counter intuitive to me that sitting a baby in front of a screen can be educational at all. Tell us more about that, the research around that. People are just convinced that these baby computers, the lap wear that you can purchase for young infants, that it somehow beneficial for their brains.

K: It is convincing in many ways, because we so want to believe that we can do a lot to influence our child’s intelligence when they’re little. When they’re that tiny we want to do everything we can to be good parents, and sacrifice, and put all our money towards all of these games, and all of the things that can help our children. Just like that instinct you mention, it seems counterintuitive that putting your children in front of the screen would help them develop their brains. That’s what we’re finding is true.

We’re getting more and more research. If parents are interested in learning more about the research out of the University of Washington, it’s been well publicized, they can Google a Time Magazine article. It’s called “Baby Einstein Not So Smart At All.”

Our DR. *Christakis* at the University of Washington to learn more about what we’re doing there and what we’re learning. We’re just finding that the kids are spending too much time in front of the screen. By the time they’re two years old, 90% of babies and toddlers are spending two to three hours a day in front of the screen. 40%of them are regular viewers of DVDs. We want to take charge as parents and try to limit that and be aware of the impact.

C: Yes. One of the things is that modern parents are so busy. Most of us are working to earn a living, in addition to caring for our children. It’s a double edged sword, because we’re tired and stressed, so sometimes we just need a bit of a break, or a bit of relief, and it’s so easy to allow electronics to entertain our children, so it really does require more work and more effort on our part to be an unplugged parent.

K: It does, but a little bit is okay. As children get older, a little bit of screen time is okay. When I say screen time I include computer and television. I know we all need a break, and sometimes that’s the difference of a day being good or bad, is if you get that extra 30 minutes to catch your breath. I understand that.

We shouldn’t disillusion ourselves about it. We should be aware that when we are taking that break, we’re maybe not doing something great for our child, but we’re doing something that’s okay.

I don’t want the parents to think “Wow, I’ get to take this break, and my child gets to become a smarter individual.” That’s really not what we’re finding.

We’re not always going to do the best things for our child in each moment, we’re just trying to be good enough parents. I just think if we look at the game time, or the TV time, or the DVD time as really entertainment for our kids, we’ll keep it in better perspective.

C: That’s a great point, just viewing it as entertainment. Entertainment has its place, and no parent would want their child to have a completely boring experience, but entertainment has a place. It doesn’t have the primary place, it shouldn’t overtake more important things like family time, reading and education. That’s a great way of putting it. It’s the dessert at the end of a meal.

K: It is. We all need a break, and we all need some fun. A lot of the kids we see in our counseling practices, Hilary and I, feel that entertainment is just something they feel entitled to, they feel entitled to spend six or seven hours a day just sitting and playing a game. They’re very angry if they’re not allowed to do that. It’s getting that balance and being aware of the effect that the games have for our kids.

C: We’ve talked a lot about some of the effects on the brain, but what about our kids’ actual physical health? The first thing that springs to mind obviously, is the same issue with a lot of television viewing, that it’s a sedentary activity. But are we seeing any other health repercussions from children spending a lot of time with gaming?

K: It’s going to be interesting in the future, they’re doing the research now. It’s going to be interesting to see more and more about development of our eyes, we’re noticing some differences now. Research is focusing now of coordination and balance and depth perception for children. We see an effect on sleep for kids who game a lot. It absolutely interferes with their sleep cycle.

The vision thing, it’s going to be interesting to see what we find about that. So much time spent in front of the screen, that the American Optometric Association is doing some research right now. They’ve identified what they call a Computer Vision Syndrome, where vision related problems are happening for kids, because they’re spending so much time in front of a screen. There seem to be more than just eye strain. Lots of headaches and blurred vision.

C: That’s so interesting. Because last night, I went out with a group of friends to see the new Batman movie, and whenever I see a movie like that, that has a lot of action happening really fast, I always have a headache after.

Just listening to you say that about vision issues, it makes me think what if a child is spending that two hours a day watching a video game? It would have the same effect, I would imagine. Lots of fast moving action. It’s coming at you so fast, you don’t have time to figure it out. You’re like “Huh?” You’re asking the person next to you “What just happened?” It’s so fast.

Video games are the same, so if the child is spending that equivalent amount of time in video games every day, it has to have some kind of effect on their vision and triggering headaches. It makes total sense.

K: It does. We can let our children know about that, to be aware of eye strain. Even if it’s just that one hour of screen time that they’re getting, for young kids, look away from the screen from time to time, take some breaks, every 20 minutes or so get up and walk away from it and take a break, so that you’re not just sitting sustained for one hour.

You did talk about obesity, and I think that’s the number one issue. If you look at physical health associated with extensive gaming for kids. It’s the obesity rate, and the instance of diabetes for children now. You can play the Wii, but it’s so much better to get outside and kick an actual ball around. That’s the biggest challenge right now for our kids.

C: It is. And it’s a sad situation that we live in a world in which parents are afraid to send their children outside. It really is sad. It is a legitimate concern, especially in some areas. Not everyone lives in an area where they can just allow their children the freedom to roam around. It’s a sad state of affairs in the world, because it’s effecting our children’s health and their behavior.

I’ve had a conversation/argument before with people that are close to me that don’t seem to understand the importance of that. They say “Watching TV, etc, seems to calm the children down.” But I always say “The problem is that the moment you turn it off, all of that energy comes bursting out and they literally start bouncing off the walls, picking fights with each oother, jumping on the sofa.

But if they’re outside, all of that energy is going to be used up. They’re going to eat better, sleep better, not have all that nervous energy to pick on each other so much.

K: I agree 100%. It’s interesting, some of the reasons why we want our kids indoors and not outdoors, and there’s safety issues. But I’m finding that in some of the most affluent neighborhoods, they’re gated, they look really safe and they don’t have crime rates even reported in some of these really affluent neighborhoods. There are parents that can have the luxury of being home during the day with their kids, and they can watch each other’s kids, those are the neighborhoods where parents are having their kids play indoors.

I don’t know if it’s so much that we’re afraid to let our kids outside right now, it’s just that it’s so much more convenient and easy for us, maybe, to know where they are, and not have to deal with the dynamics of being out in the world.

Jpnas hula hooping
Creative Commons License photo credit: jakesmome

C: Yeah, maybe that’s true. There again, the bottom line is that as parents we have to take charge, be the leaders of our family, and set an example. It wouldn’t kill us to get outside and play, and get some more exercise. I know with me, I like to go outside and have a walk every day for exercise. I kind of have been leaving it up to my children as to whether they join me or not, but lately I’ve been not giving them the option.

They love to play outside anyway, and I can let them roam around, but I’ve been noticing that my seven year old and five year old have a difficult time keeping up with me when we walk, and that concerns me. Neither one of them has health problems, but it concerns me that they seem to get winded so easily. I’ve been making them go out with me and get a little bit more exercise for the sake of it.

K: Or just go at their pace a little bit more until they’re ready for yours. Kids love paying games like “I Spy” when they’re walking, or a little treasure hunt, or collecting leaves. It’s just so important to them to get out there in the world and interact with other kids. I think that lends itself to a higher level of intelligence later in life than knowing how to work a computer.

C: Absolutely. That’s right. Kim, thank you so much for joining us. This is such an important and timely topic. I really appreciate your book, and all that you and Hilary have put together for parents to empower us and know what we’re exposing our children to, so we can make better choices. Thank you so much.

K: You’re welcome, Carrie. I just want to add for parents, we do have a web site up that has an assessment tool for parents, so they can go there and check off some boxes. They can see if their children really do have a problem or not. That’s at

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One Response to Video Games and Your Kids

  1. Aodbb says:

    When will parents get it? When will they realize there is only 1 person they can ever be in control of and it is not a child or a spouse? Are these parents involved? Are they trying out the video games for themselves? Or are they upset that the video games have become the only place the child feels safe from their controlling parents?

    We respect our children and they do not have these issues with video games. They are still very connected to the world around them and by giving them the true choice (where they can say yes or no and not “get in trouble”) they are able to decide how long they need or want to play. There is no fighting, no demanding, arguing…

    Maybe it is because the children mentioned above are leaving their parents at age 6 to go to school. It could be many other reasons other than the video games. I think it is wrong to assume that playing video games “all the time” creates these disruptions. I think it is the parent trying to control, instead of being with their child and seeing these wondrous creations as puzzle solving fun….seeing it through the eyes of their child. When my son gets frustrated with a level he is trying to complete I don’t rush him or tell him to get off the game system. Instead I offer a “good luck hug” and ask him to try to explain it to me. He doesn’t get upset then, instead he brightens and remembers it is just a game and that when he steps away for a bit he can come back and master the problem.

    We are so quick to want to blame something other than ourselves for the issues with our children. I think 9 times out of 10 it is the parent who has the issue.

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