Video games have been sucking time away from computer programmers, children and adult gamers since the 1950s. The creators of the classic game Pong would hardly recognize the wide range of today's interactive games, which involve everything from growing virtual farms to killing aliens on a distant planet. Little ones aren’t immune to the siren call of games and are spending more time than ever engaged in electronic play. As a parent, you likely wonder about the effects of these computer games on early childhood development.
1. Games and the Brain
Here's the bad news: Computer games will change your child’s brain. According to Dr. Douglas Gentile, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, playing computer games gives the human brain a jolt of dopamine when the player solves a puzzle, conquers a level or vanquishes a foe. In effect, it chemically teaches the brain to react to situations that no one would probably never see in real life. However, this may have real consequences for the rest of your child’s life. In a 2009 study conducted by Iowa University, children and college students were asked to play video games. They were randomly given violent, neutral or pro-social games. Afterwards they were presented with a situation where they could either harm or help another student as he solved a puzzle. Violent gamers made 30 percent more hurtful choices that those that played pro-social games.
2. Games and Health
Computer games can also affect children’s physical development. When children are playing computer games, they aren’t playing, running or exploring the real world. This can put young children at risk for obesity and poor muscle development. The risk is the same for watching television; however, many television shows aimed at young children now have computer tie-ins. This effectively doubles the screen time as children watch the show, then play the video game.
3. Games and Learning
Not all is grim in the computer game department. The same study that found violent gamers learned violence also showed that pro-social gamers were far more likely to help their partners. This suggests that children can learn socially acceptable values form games just as easily as they can learn anti-social behavior. Computer games also help children develop cognitive skills. Educational games help young children learn letters and numbers. They also teach more subtle skills. For example, games requiring players to watch for characters that appear all over the screen train the child to watch for and track moving objects. Games such as “Marble Madness” that ask players to roll a ball through a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen help children develop spatial awareness and teach them to make physical inferences.
4. What Parents Should Do
Like anything else, parents should monitor and limit time devoted to computer games. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to be familiar with the content of all games and only allow games that conform to your family’s values. Keep game and TV time to an hour; this ensures that your child has plenty of time for running, playing and using her own imagination.
- PBS: The Video Game Revolution Timeline
- DANA: Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse
- Iowa State University, Department of Psychology: The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence from Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies
- Princeton University: Impact of Home Computer Use on Children's Activities and Development
- HealthyChildren.org: Video Games: Set Your Own Ratings System
- Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images