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Facing the Facts: The Negative Impact of Video Games on Our Youth


02May 2010

I have been “holding off” on writing this blog, partly for fear of sounding like Chicken Little (“The sky is falling”, “TV rots your brains”, “Video games are evil”) and partly for fear of sounding like an old fogie (“Things were better when we played dominoes by candlelight”).

But I cannot hold my tongue any longer. Just today I received notice about a major study that came out this spring – a meta-analysis of 130 research studies with over 130,000 youth studied. The finding?

Violent video games make youth (both male and female) more likely to engage in personal aggression themselves. Surprise, surprise. Do you mean to tell me that watching and participating in repeated fantasy action of shooting, stabbing, hitting, and murdering others — done for hours and hours, over days, weeks, months and years — actually impacts a person’s behavior? I’m shocked.

Let’s look at some of the other negative characteristics typical of most video game playing:

Video games are primarily self-focused.
I know you can play games with others (either in person or on-line), but who really plays video games for the purpose of serving others? (Except the occasional parent who dislikes them.) It’s true, they can be a form of entertainment — used for relaxing and leisure time, for chilling. But how many of you have noticed that your children (or husband) become more self-focused, agitated, irritable and less willing to do their responsibilities after they have played for two or three hours? It is about them and what they are doing — how dare you interrupt their game and ask them to study, mow the lawn or clear the table?

Video games and the skills they build have virtually no transferability to real life. How many jobs are there that require superfast hand/eye coordination and decision-making? I used to say there were no careers for which video games prepared you for. I was corrected during a lecture — these skills are useful in the military for those who pilot drones and bombs to their destinations. I stand corrected. Now how many of those jobs are there? And how many people grow up with that career dream? That leaves about 75+ million American youth and young adults under 30.

Video games steal time and mental energy from tasks that could be truly productive and/or skill building. In business, this is known as “opportunity cost” — you only have so much time and energy. And if you spend that time and energy on Halo or World of Warcraft, then that time and energy can’t be spent on physical exercise, studying, learning to play an instrument, or working a part-time job. We are literally wasting hundreds of millions of hours of potentially productive time with our youth and young adults.

Video games create a false sense of competency. I am convinced that one of the draws of video games — especially for those students who struggle in school — is that it gives them a sense of competency. They are able to beat an adversary, win at a certain level of difficulty, or obtain virtual rewards and treasures. The problem is — the competency isn’t real; what good does it do them away from the virtual world? One time I had a significantly overweight 10 year old boy tell me he was really good at tennis. After further inquiry, I found out he was good at tennis on the Wii, but he actually believed he was good at playing tennis. We need to help our children build self-confidence but through tasks which they will use in real life.

Video games can become highly addictive, especially to individuals with ADD/ADHD. It is well-known among those who work on college campuses that many young men (primarily) spend 3 or more hours a day playing videogames. And it is documented that at least 10% demonstrated addictive behaviors — not being able to quit even if they want to, losing weight because they do not stop to eat, and probably the most common — disruptions of sleep due to playing patterns. [I recently had parents report that their 12 year old was getting up in the middle of the night after his parents had gone to sleep and was gaming for hours — they finally realized why he was always so tired.] Neuroscientists are now finding associations between the adrenaline-rush and addictive behaviors that are associated with high-stimulation video games.

(I am aware that there are exceptions to each of the above-raised points, but these are common characteristics of those children, teens, young adults and adults who play a lot of video games.)

So that I don’t just criticize and run, let me give parents some practical suggestions for dealing with the challenges associated with the video game craze in our culture.

1. Don’t accept the “everybody does it” excuse. Oh, yea. That’s a good one — right up there with smoking, under-age drinking, casual sex, smoking pot and every other generational foolish decision young people have argued with their parents about. But the problem is: almost everyone else is doing it. So parents, show some backbone. Set rules and guidelines. Fight the battle. Be “mean”. And stick to what you know is right.

2. Set limits. Take the power cords. Lock up the controls. Set on-line limits. Require that schoolwork and/or chores are done prior to any time playing games. And limit the time — 30-60 minutes on weekdays (preferably none, if you can get away with it), and 1-2 hours per day on weekends. More than that, and you can’t really monitor the limits.

3. Use the “real life” rule. Ask yourself, your husband (husbands are often part of the problem), and your children: “Would we encourage this behavior in real life?” Do I want my kids to steal cars, mug people, shoot and murder others? “Oh, it is just a game”, it is argued. Ok, then why don’t we encourage games that have your teenager rape others and burn houses down with people still in them? Give me a break — why do we need research to show us that repetitive thoughts and fantasy actions increase the probability of those actions actually occurring in real life?

4. If your children are still young, delay getting games as long as possible. The battle is harder to fight when the games are in the house. Don’t worry. They won’t be deprived — they will still play at their friends’ houses. Wait. Wait. Wait. If you want to, get them a Wii. Do the educational games. But lay off all the Gameboys, X-boxes, Playstations, Internet-based games — you and they will be better off. (I could tell you a personal story about my four kids — now ages 19 to 27, but you wouldn’t believe me.)

I know this entry has a bit of an edge and angry tone. Sorry (sort of). I wish I could communicate what I want without the irritability, but sometimes there are things worth getting angry about.

For those of you with students in school, think about how you are going to manage this summer — they are off school, have lots of free time, and you will be at work. Do you want your kids playing 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 hours of video games a day? (Ten to twelve hours isn’t unrealistic.) If not, what are you going to do about it now?

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