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The Truth About Video Games

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

If your teen plays video games – and what teen doesn’t? – then you might wonder if this is a good idea and if you should limit her play or restrict the sorts of games you allow into the house. Let’s take a look at what research tells us.

First, there’s a lot of bad research done on video games, research that uses outdated games or programs, small participant samples, and biased assumptions. The 2008 book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do exposes our willingness to believe that video games are bad for kids without actually examining things carefully. At the same time, do your own research at home by looking at your own kids and seeing what appears to be video games’ effects.

Research demonstrates that some video games do portray violent story lines that include criminal behavior and exploitation.  There is some concern that especially in First Person Shooter games, in which players act as a character, that rehearsal of violent acts encourages violent behavior. However – and this is a big “however” – correlation does not imply causality. Kids who play the most violent games may be more violent than other kids even without rehearsal through video game play. There is no evidence that playing violent games causes bad behavior.

While you certainly might want to restrict the sorts of video games your kids play at home, and you will want to have a heart-to-heart conversation about why some video game scenarios give you the willies, there is not a direct line between kids who play violent games and delinquent behavior.

But there does seem to be a direct line between video games and more positive outcomes. We’ve long known that video game play improves eye-hand coordination and spatial relations skills. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Toronto found that women who play video games improve their spatial relations abilities, erasing the usual gap between the sexes, in just a few minutes of play. Ability in spatial relations is important in understanding physics and engineering and is a key attribute of surgeons, artists and architects, among others, so supporting this ability in both boys and girls is important.

Kids who play video games appear also to be more creative than other kids.  A recent study in Michigan compared kids’ scores on a standard creativity test with the amount of time they devote to video game play. The more game play kids engaged in the more creative they scored on the test. This is another example of a correlation – we can’t tell if more creative kids like video games more than other kids or if video game play actually makes a child more creative – but the result is clear: video game play is linked to a trait that is essential to great ideas.

So it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Parents are encouraged to play video games with their children and know exactly what sorts of scenarios and values are portrayed, scenarios and values that their kids might be living vicariously. Parents should feel empowered to limit the sorts of games their children play, just as they might limit what a child wears to school. But video games have real value beyond entertainment, value too important to just dismiss.

At the same time.. keep in mind that we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. A brain perfectly suited to video game play – and nothing else – isn’t what any parent wants for a child. So make certain that game play is part of a well-rounded day that includes reading, outdoor time, helping around the house, and building something, making music or creating art. Those things also develop spatial abilities and eye-hand coordination… and social skills as well.

While video game play might seem necessary to every 21st-century child – and there’s no reason to preclude it – other activities are just as necessary. Be sure your child gets some of every good thing.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.