Boys Christmas

Video Games and Your Children

Video games – sometimes us parents feel like video games are our nemesis.  In this blog I will address what the impacts are of addicting games, if video games cause violence, what are the effects of violent video games on children, and the biggest question which is how long should I permit my children to play per day?

The holidays are officially over and just like years past we witnessed Christmas lists filled with requests for games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Far Away. This time of year more than most little Johnny and Suzy beleaguer their parents with pleas to play more and more with all those video games Santa brought. Although we do not completely understand this generation, we do typically indulge them and then suffer through the mixed emotions of seeing our children’s euphoria over the new video games. Soon enough the positive aspect goes away and we are in a power struggle over how long they should play and yes, admit it – you find yourself on occasion saying, “kids these days…and get outside and play!”

Like it or not we have become our parents and we measure today’s world through a black and white paradigm of how it was when we were children. For instance, many of us grew up in households spending many hours watching consecutive football or baseball games but today we grow irate at our children playing video games for a fraction of the time. Face the facts =- things aren’t the same as indicated by the statistic that 97% of children play for at least one hour per day in the United States.

As unique as we would like to view ourselves we are ensnared in a generation gap tradition illustrated by one of our nation’s founders. Ben Franklin found himself compelled to defend a new behavior that must have been causing dread and doubt in parents of his era. Consider that bygone viewpoints of Chess warranted the following treatise:

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions.. .we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. —Benjamin Franklin, “The Morals of Chess”

 Further, I will add that in 1825 there was significant concern that the speed of train travel would mental problems and diarrhea. Apparently, there was skepticism that the mind could absorb the imagery associated with high rates of speed that at that time were what we travel in school zones.

With these considerations in mind and the goal of eliminating the risk of your being an anachronism, I am presenting the following information to explain what we currently know about the impacts of video games.

  • Do Video Games Cause Violence?

There is much to follow on this topic and many great research papers done. However, an initial answer to the question can be achieved by avoiding all the multi-million dollar funded papers by people with 30+ years of education and 17 PhD’s by sprinkling some common sense on the topic.

Let’s assume that video games do cause violence. Therefore, we should see a commensurate pattern between video gaming usage and violence.

The most violent countries in the world are:

RANK                            COUNTRY                                                        

1                                     Syria

2                                     Iraq

3                                     Afghanistan

4                                     South Sudan

5                                     Central African Republic

6                                     Somalia

7                                     Sudan

8                                     Democratic Republic of the Congo

9                                     Pakistan

10                                    North Korea

 The countries with the highest amount of video game use are:

  • China
  • United States of America
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Germany
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Canada
  • Spain
  • Italy

 I am just not seeing it….Granted, everyone knows how absolutely psycho Canadians, Italians and the French are but they just don’t compare with the other countries. More practice might yield better results but for now, I think it is safe to say that your kids can go right ahead and play the violent video games with their friends and they are very unlikely to turn into terrorists.


  • Cognitive benefits of Video Gaming

Cognitive – defined as : of, relating to, or involving conscious mental activities (such as thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering)

Let us flip the thinking here towards the positive aspects rather than the negatives. Mounting evidence illustrates that memory, processing, attention, decision making are all positively impacted through video games to the extent where they actually help develop abilities considered to be the basic building blocks of intelligence. The findings are based upon the types of games where split second decision making is frequently warranted to either succeed or fail. This repetition of need is akin to muscle memory and produces improved results through a nanny carrot and stick system enforced by the likes of Xbox and Nintendo.

A recently published meta-analysis (Uttal et al., 2013) concluded that the spatial skills improvements derived from playing commercially available shooter video games are comparable to the effects of formal (high school and university-level) courses aimed at enhancing these same skills. Further, this recent meta-analysis showed that spatial skills can be trained with video games in a relatively brief period, that these training benefits last over an extended period of time, and crucially, that these skills transfer to other spatial tasks outside the video game context.

For example, a recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI )study found that the mechanisms that control attention allocation (e.g., the fronto-parietal network) were less active during a challenging pattern-detection task in regular gamers than in non-gamers, leading the researchers to suggest that shooter game players allocate their attentional resources more efficiently and filter out irrelevant information more effectively

Instead of learning through explicit linear instruction (e.g., by reading a manual first), many children and youth problem-solve through trial and error, recursively collecting evidence which they test through experimentation.

Moreover, this latter study showed an indirect mediation effect such that playing strategic games predicted higher self-reported problem-solving skills, which, in turn, predicted better academic grades

The story behind a recent breakthrough in biology research provides a nice illustration of how gamers’ superior spatial and problem-solving skills, as well as their creativity, all came together to solve a real world, previously insoluble problem. In 2008, researchers at the University of Washington created an online game called Foldit (Cooper et al., 2010), allowing the public to play games in which they model the genetic makeup of proteins. At the end of a three-week competition in 2010, top-scoring players had generated phase estimates that allowed researchers to identify a rapid solution of the crystal structure for a monkey virus related to AIDS. The structure had eluded researchers for over 10 years; however, the nonlinear, cooperative, and creative problem-solving techniques used by these gamers seemed to be precisely the skills needed to finally solve this elusive problem.

Learning to learn – For many reasons of my upbringing I was not a good student until I got to college. The transcendent moment when I evolved from surviving college to excelling was when I finally learned how to learn. Video games help children develop that critical lifelong skill.

Whether you play with other players or alone, in order to play, you must learn. Learning and playing are often indistinguishable because game structure mirrors well-established learning models (Van Eck, 2006). If you are learning in a game, you make progress. If you make progress in a game, you see evidence such as points or levels, reinforcing your perceptions of accomplishment and self-efficacy (Gee, 2007).

  • Improvements in attention and vigilance

Improved spatial attention.  Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to locate, quickly, a target stimulus in a field of distractors–a test that has been found to be a good predictor of driving ability.

  • Improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distractors.   Action games improved the ability of children and adults to keep track of a set of moving objects that were visually identical to other moving objects in the visual field (Trick et al., 2005).
  • Reduced impulsiveness.  Action games improved performance in a test of the ability to refrain from responding to non-target stimuli, in a situation in which most stimuli called for a response but an occasional stimulus called for no response (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009).
  • Overcoming dyslexia.  Dysexia, in at least some cases, seems to derive from problems of visual attention.  One study showed that as few as 12 hours of video game play improved dyslexic children’s scores on tests of reading and phonology (Franceschini et al, 2013).  In fact, the improvement was as great or greater than that achieved by training programs that were explicitly designed to treat dyslexia.
  • Improvements in executive functioning
    1. Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously.
    2. Increased mental flexibility.
    3. Reversing mental decline that accompanies aging.
      1. One study found that such play led not just to cognitive improvements, but also to better self-concepts and enhanced qualities of life in elderly participants (Torres, 2011)
  • Interpersonal benefits of gaming

Yes – it actually says that. Parents think nothing of talking about the Packer game or Twilight (shudder) but our children use a lexicon that includes mods, glitches and gamer tags. Make your child exclusively in the image of your childhood and you create an anachronism that cannot blend with their peer group.

I have watched my children play with their friends and have joined them in games. There is a high level of interaction, planning, coordination, and refinement based upon trial and error that goes into the game time. Over this holiday season the laughter and joy emanating from the bonding experience between three boys was highly evident and obviously of benefit.

Brilliant research papers say it less succinctly but so well that I will share their detail:

Gameplay success through mastery elicits commendations and validation from other players both within the magic circle of gameplay but also in the larger community of players who play that specific game.

Games create communities of practice — groups of people who share a common competence and interest, whether it’s Farmville or Call of Duty. Participation creates a shared understanding and reinforces the social identity that comes from being included in the group (Lave & Wenger, 1990).

Game knowledge and skill is a social language that provides connection and context, like any other sport, art, or specialized endeavor. The shared knowledge of a popular game creates what James Paul Gee (2007) calls “affinity groups” provide a way to identify other group members.  It works for Call of Duty the same way it works for NFL Football. The common ground functions as a social bridge, allowing for social interaction with peers that has little to do with game content and a great deal to do with demonstrating competence, membership and social validation. Peer validation then reaffirms and reinforces the community-based identity and  the social currency of learning as a community-valued asset (Lee & Hammer, 2011).

In multi-player games like World of Warcraft, the game culture often encourages players to ask questions of those more accomplished or to offer advice to those less experienced. Game producers recognize the value in promoting these types of collaborative cultures because rewarding play experiences translate into profitable commercial ones. Thus, multiplayer games include built-in functionality to support player discourse, such as chat channels. Beyond demonstrating expertise or facilitating learning, game play with collaborative missions necessitate mastering a much more serious social skill,  cooperation such as the negotiation of moral behaviors and trust relationships necessary to complete quests and challenges (Nardi, Ly, & Harris, 2007) .”

Today, children get the same experience playing games virtually with other children that we had playing outside. Mind you, I am an outdoors man so I am not saying they do not need the outdoors and fresh air but I am focusing specifically on child interaction. Our instincts based upon our childhood dictate to send them outside but if you had not noticed we no longer live in the world where the streets teem with children and in most neighborhoods loneliness is what children experience when they go outside to “play”. Census reports prove that the percentage of children in today’s population is in a declining trend since the early seventies. What other options does a child have to fulfill that innate desire to play with others, make friends, bond, explore, laugh, grow and learn? Wander around in deserted streets surrounded by homes populated with adults staring at televisions??? Talk about irony with a heavy dosage of hypocrisy.

There is a reason they crave these games and the games are not the reason. The other children on the games are the reason so start parenting and stop interfering.

  • Games Encourage Comfort with Decision-Making

Games, like much of life, are a series of puzzles and decisions. Unlike life, however, games make risk-taking easy.  They often create situations where players not only must make decisions, they must make them quickly and must they must continually adapt to changing circumstances and rules. These circumstances encourage cognitive flexibility, the tolerance of ambiguity and comfort with decision-making without full information—excellent skills for dealing with real world situations on a daily basis at work, at school and at home (Reeves, Malone, & O’Driscoll, 2008).

  • Promote Improved Moods

It is not every day I am able to attend a live speaking event with an Oprah celebrity but earlier this year I was fortunate to listen to Jane McGonigal present at an educational event. She is to video gaming what Warren Buffett is to investing and I took away many fascinating points.

McGonigal offers empirical evidence that playing games promotes neurological activity equal to happiness and that video games promote improved moods.

This is a very critical point and in a world obsessed with grades, it is important to consider the importance of happiness on children’s health. Children are frequently isolated from their peer group, which can lead to depression, and gaming provides remote access to friends. Every one of us has lost someone to Cancer or some other horrible condition and empirical evidence shows that depression is a leading cause of these sorts of fatal conditions.

In addition. McGonigal presented many fascinating points including:

When we play video games, we have a “real sense of optimism in our abilities and our opportunities to get better and succeed, and more physical and mental energy to engage with difficult problems,” McGonigal explained, “and that is actually the physiological and psychological state of game play.”

According to McGonigal, when people play video games, brain scans show the most active parts of the brain are the rewards pathway system, which is associated with motivation and goal orientation, and the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. These are the two main parts of the brain that don’t activate when people are suffering from depression.


  • Positive emotions make us resilient
  • Video games help surround yourself with positive emotions
  • The opposite of play it isn’t work it is depression
  • In cancer patients: play was linked to remission
  • There was an improvement in anti-biotic efficacy of 16%
  •  Increases of 41% in blood chemo levels
  • Playing video games showed high activity levels in the Hippocampus
  • Playing video games resulted in super empowered players with increased confidence

Other Benefits:

Improvements in basic visual processes

Improved visual contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish subtle differences in shades of gray) compared to controls (Li et al., 2009).

Successful treatment of amblyopia.

Many in the gaming condition developed 20/20 vision or better in the previously “lazy eye,” and visual attention and stereoscopic vision (ability to coordinate input from the two eyes to see depth) were restored to normal.

  • Let the kid’s play!

The thought of a video game still may strike horror into the hearts of many, but video games are just a digital manifestation of a very basic human behavior: play. Playing is where we learn. Throughout history, games and gaming have been an integral part of human expression of culture and identity, facilitating collaboration and creativity. Play is vital to a child’s social and emotional development. Play is where we work through emotions, learn to share, negotiate joining groups or ongoing play, experience the perspectives of others, learn to cope with our own emotions, and explore our self-perceptions (Piaget, 1962). It’s only the technology that is new.

An apple a day…. In fact, the phrase an apple a day keeps the doctor away might have to be amended to include and a video game as there are studies showing the benefits of a daily diet of video games that changes the tone to the adverse effects of not gaming.

A study in 2014 called “Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Adjustment” claims to have found the ideal game time that will benefit children: one hour per day. In order to come to this conclusion, study author Andrew Pryzybylsky polled almost 5,000 British children between the ages of 10-15 about their psychological well-being and their video game habits.

The study found that children who played video games for an hour or less each day were on average more social and satisfied than children who didn’t play video games.

Conversely, children who played one to three hours of video games were roughly as social and satisfied as non-gamers, and children who played more than three hours per day were less happy than non-gamers and prone to behavioral problems.

In fact as already shown the evidence portrays that people introduced to video games and tested against people not playing perform better in many mental aspects.

  •  Inspect your belief system and…

Redirect your well-intended scrutiny. These days it is vogue to be cynical about religion and video games but where is the consistency and discernment when we fail to put commensurate effort into inspecting television shows, movies or listening to music?

  • What are the positives and negatives of the lyrics and messaging of rap?
  • What type of messaging are the behaviors illustrated by the vast majority of professional athletes instilling into our children?
  • What political, cultural and behavioral agendas are being streamed into our psyches by the hours we sit at movie theaters, watch television shows and the news?
  • Your children spend their workweek at school with an educational system that will feed them with information ingrained with a viewpoint from the teacher, school, and/or educational system – do you agree with that position?
  • Have you read what your children read? Is the belief that reading is good so mind numbing that any reading is acceptable? There is messaging in every book – inspect that message or live with the living ramifications of that message.
  • Advertising drives what types of behavior? We used to talk about materialism and the superficiality of consumerism but the storage industry’s wild success suggests that we have surrendered this battle under the fusillade of advertising. Your children are exposed to tens of thousands of advertisements on every other vehicle besides video games.
  • Remember when you were a kid – Don’t you remember the term “idiot box” that our parents used to deride the television?

The safe zone – Regardless of your political and behavioral preferences on some level you must keep your eyes wide open to what your children are mentally fed. I propose that video games actually provide our children the exception unusually development opportunity free of those influences – a virtual neighborhood where they can choose which kids to play with and lock out the pit bulls, drug dealers, bullies, pedophiles and advertisements lurking in the real world.

Video games versus television:

Watch your children while they play video games with their friends either in person or remotely and I believe you will find that they are more beneficial than television.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Viewpoint on Video Games

In a series of research-based panels, it found that screen time used properly can facilitate learning and socialization, and social media use is associated with both positives and negatives. To maintain a healthy relationship with screen time, the AAP now recommends:

  1. Parents should be involved in their children’s digital (and non-digital, obviously) lives. They should play with them, co-view with young children, know who their friends are, and set limits – just like they do with in-person interactions. Modeling how (and how often) to use technology is important as well.
  2. Try to choose media that mirrors live interactions, or two-way conversations. Neuroscience research shows that young children, especially those under the age of two, learn the most from “talk time.” Watching television or videos on iPads does not help infants and young toddlers learn language. Video chatting with a parent who is travelling is more beneficial.
  3. Educational media created for children can be beneficial. Apps, games, and programs can help children age 2 and older learn by working toward rewards, experiencing failure, experimenting with solutions, and building skills. Parents can evaluate the educational quality of media using sites like Common Sense Media. Seek out products that demonstrate cultural diversity.
  4. It’s OK for teens to be online. Having relationships online and in social media is a normal part of teens’ identity formation, and fosters independence. Digital gaming can improve mood, reduce stress, and promote creation of social skills like cooperation, support, and helping others.
  5. Establish screen-free time. Like any activity, technology should have a time and a place. It’s important for very young children to have unstructured playtime, and to have zones where screens aren’t allowed – like bedrooms or the dinner table. Think about what kids are giving up to use screens, and strive for balance.
  6. Give guidance. Kids will make mistakes, and post something inappropriate. Parents need to be there to help them learn appropriate behavior and etiquette online, just like they do in the real world.
  7. The AAP has established the Children’s Digital Media Alliance (CDMA) to expand on the symposium and complete additional research. It plans to release updated recommendations at its 2016 National Conference and Exhibition. In the meantime, it recommends that pediatricians work with parents to assess the quantity and quality of screen time use, and recommend parameters for healthy use. There is potential for overuse. The AAP hopes that educators will teach media literacy to students, and guide children to engage safely.
  • How long per day should my kids play video games?

 If you spend hours online researching how to answer this succinctly as I have you will find a broad array of answers to this question. Most of these opinions are based upon subjective cultural and/or generational viewpoints that fluctuate year to year in an adoption trend towards more screen time is acceptable. Comparing findings from 2010 to 2015 illustrate a significant change in tone from a strident anti gaming to a more informed and mature acceptance of the risks and benefits. Shockingly, parents cannot even rely on the rock of Gibraltar we have founded so many decisions upon – The American Academy of Pediatrics. Even this argument solving entity has failed to provide a definitive answer as they have come out and admitted they need to catch up and provide a recommendation in 2016.

Therefore, in consideration of the well founded points already stated I recommend that you take your particular circumstance into strong consideration on how much time a day your child is playing video games.

Like everything else it is part of the fabric of their lives and should be measured, regulated and used with a reward and incentive system.   If your child is working hard at school and maintaining healthy study habits then video games should be a reward. If they are putting in the effort but the grades aren’t there don’t remove the games but add in the necessary assistance through your own efforts or tutoring. The key decision making point is are they: Doing Their Best?

If your children have a neighborhood rife with other children same aged children then ensure they have that outside play time with video games as a smaller part of their diet. The opposite for the large population of children growing up in environments where they lack like aged children nearby. Video games may be their only opportunity to interact with other children and therefore up the ratio of time.

Monitor their overall activity

How much exercise does your child get every day? Are they overweight or weak? Do they participate in sports or extracurricular activities like scouting?

I have cub scouts glued to portable games, are overweight, and have no social skills. Red flag. At every scouting event I take their games away so they get some life balance.

I have scouts that play high school baseball, are ripped, and play video games with their friends – that is a balanced life and I am more inclined to look the other way when outside a scouting event. At scouts they need to interact with the other children who don’t have life balance.

At our scouting events, there is a zero tolerance policy for video games and we provide a Mayberry /Sandlot type environment where the children do not even ask for them. I encourage every parent to place their children in scouting to offer that balance but while they are home and insulated from other children let them play as follows.

Drumroll please… From a broad array of sources, the single prevailing number is an hour a day for video games is beneficial and up to two to three hours do not provide any negative impact.   At least an hour a day actually provides benefits to our children. My wife and I have agreed on ninety minutes being the sweet spot.

It turns out that video games are not akin to something that will rot their teeth but rather flossing and brushing that will improve their oral hygiene.

Our children are growing up in environment completely alien to preceding generations but in one that is consistent with our own goals of self-improvement. Video games provide a medium for these youth (and adults) to foster self-improvement independent from a structured environment and in a medium they find stimulating and is everyday being proven to be exactly that. Video games also offer an insulated environment where children can escape from a world snarled with snake oil messaging like lose weight quick, get rich quick, vote for me, donate to us, buy this, east this, drink this, believe this, believe nothing.

I often think back to those serene moments of my youth of regularly walking through the woods. Today, youth typically grow up without that easy access to that wilderness as we live in an urban and suburban world. Where patches of woods remain, all too often we restrict our children’s independent access due largely media hype that predators, pedophiles and terrorists lurk behind every tree. The success of video games like Minecraft are due the child’s natural yearning to roam free as we did. Video games still provide that rare opportunity to explore a world free of messaging where their minds can grow and imaginations soar.

I have based this blog entry upon my own experience working with numerous children in scouting, my own two boys, my own periodic indulgences and a wealth of information available from highly credible and apparently well-funded sources.

Enjoy the New Year and the joys of parenting!



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