Researcher Blog October 2015
Should I Be Worried About My Child Playing Computer Games?
What are you planning to do in your half term holiday? Does your teenage son or daughter want to spend time with you, doing activities or do they want to spend all day in their bedroom, playing online computer games with their friends? Perhaps your half term will fall somewhere between these two extremes. How worried should I be as a parent, when my son wants to spend a significant amount of his time playing online games instead of playing outside?
Video games are a unique form of entertainment because they encourage players to become a part of the game's script. Although video games have been available for more than 30 years, today's sophisticated video games require players to pay constant attention to the game. Players engage on deeper level—physically and emotionally—than people do when watching a movie or TV.
There is a host of evidence, news reports and opinions about this phenomenon and so I spent some of my last half term time sifting through the published evidence and visiting some reliable websites to try and find a balanced perspective.
When does teenage behaviour become ‘abnormal’? Given that during puberty the brain changes dramatically and behaviour changes with it (Bainbridge, 2009). Even if my son was not playing computer games he would still want to spend time with his friends, spend less time with his boring Mum, be moody and uncooperative, enjoy taking more risks and be less able to read my emotions than a six year old could. All those behaviours would be completely ‘normal’ in a sixteen year old boy (Bainbridge, 2009).
Would I notice if my son was depressed or anxious and using computer games as a way of escaping from issues that were worrying him? Scientists have shown that screen time may represent a risk factor or marker of anxiety and depression in adolescents (Maras et al., 2015). Children who exercise more and have less screen time are less likely to be depressed (Kremer et al., 2014)but not enough is known about this yet and future research is needed to determine if reducing screen time aids the prevention and treatment of depression in young people (Maras et al., 2015).
There are many ways for users to play games online. This includes free games found on the Internet, games on mobile phones and handheld consoles, as well as downloadable and boxed games on PCs and consoles such as the PlayStation, Nintendo Wii or Xbox. From sport related games, to mission based games and quests inspiring users to complete challenges, interactive games cater for a wide range of interests, and can enable users to link up and play together. It is very clear that digital games are an influential and ubiquitous presence in the lives of young learners. But is there a darker side?
Some of the media reporting and scientific evidence for computer games has been very negative, horror stories of young people dropping dead after a long game playing session, or boys developing brittle bones from lack of exercise  fuel the fears of parents who want to make sure they are giving their children the right advice.
Firstly there are the health implications, it is perhaps not surprising that sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end might be linked to obesity – people sit still, don't exercise, and often eat a lot. It may also be that overweight young people tend to spend more time at the computer because they are not as active in other areas. One Canadian study found that increases in screen time were associated with increased consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages of low nutritional quality and decreased consumption of fruit and vegetables (Falbe et al., 2014).
There is now evidence that some people develop problem video game use, such as excessive use of video games leading to issues with their health or behavior. In another recent study (Porter et al., 2010)respondents who were identified as problem video game users differed significantly from others in ways that parents could use to recognize when gaming has become a problem:
They played longer than planned and with greater frequency, and more often played even though they did not want to and despite believing that they should not do it. Problem video game users were more likely to play certain online role-playing games, found it easier to meet people online, had fewer friends in real life, and more often reported excessive caffeine consumption (Porter et al., 2010).
The good stuff
So why do people play games? Is there a positive side to video games?
Here are some of the good aspects of gaming:
- They are great fun.
- There is some evidence that playing computer games improves hand-eye coordination.(Griffith et al., 1983)
- There is some evidence that playing fast paced action games improves people's eyesight. (Green and Bavelier, 2003)
- Some games involve physical activity, like those with a wireless remote or dancing games, and this provides some exercise. But research suggests these games are not a good enough substitute for normal exercise.
- Being a good gamer is a source of self-esteem for some young people.
- Most games provide mental stimulation and require some form of problem solving.
- Playing with friends can be an enjoyable social interaction.
- Online games provide people with a way to communicate with others around the world, which is especially good for people with anxiety issues or disabilities.
- Educational games are a fun way to learn (Clark et al., 2013)and could be used to improve health (Primack et al., 2012)
- Games will probably be used for training in the future (i.e. as simulators), particularly as computer power increases.
Some good advice can be found on the webpage of the charity, Childnet International,  who offer sensible advice to parents to get involved and to engage with the gaming environment and begin to understand what makes it is so attractive to young people as well as the types of activities that they enjoy.
They suggest that you talk with your children about the types of game(s) they are playing. Are they role-playing games, sports games, strategy games or first person shooters? If you’re not sure what they are, ask them to show you how they play and have a go yourself.
Some games may offer children the chance to chat with other players by voice and text. Childnet International recommend that you ask them who they are playing with and find out if they are talking to other players. If chat is available, look at the type of language that is used by other players.
If you are not sure about the suitability of a game you can check the age ratings and familiarise yourself with the PEGI icons on games. The PEGI classification gives you a clear indication whether a game is suitable for your child.
Internet safety advice is also directly applicable to the gaming environment because of the risks that are present. It is essential that children are aware of these issues and are given the skills and knowledge to help manage and reduce these risks, with the help of those around them.
BAINBRIDGE, D. 2009. Teenagers: A natural history, Greystone Books Ltd.
CLARK, D. B., TANNER-SMITH, E. E. & MAY, S. K. 2013. Digital games for learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
FALBE, J., WILLETT, W. C., ROSNER, B., GORTMAKER, S. L., SONNEVILLE, K. R. & FIELD, A. E. 2014. Longitudinal relations of television, electronic games, and digital versatile discs with changes in diet in adolescents. Am J Clin Nutr, 100, 1173-81.
GREEN, C. S. & BAVELIER, D. 2003. Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537.
GRIFFITH, J. L., VOLOSCHIN, P., GIBB, G. D. & BAILEY, J. R. 1983. Differences in eye-hand motor coordination of video-game users and non-users. Perceptual and motor skills, 57, 155-158.
KREMER, P., ELSHAUG, C., LESLIE, E., TOUMBOUROU, J. W., PATTON, G. C. & WILLIAMS, J. 2014. Physical activity, leisure-time screen use and depression among children and young adolescents. J Sci Med Sport, 17, 183-7.
MARAS, D., FLAMENT, M. F., MURRAY, M., BUCHHOLZ, A., HENDERSON, K. A., OBEID, N. & GOLDFIELD, G. S. 2015. Screen time is associated with depression and anxiety in Canadian youth. Prev Med, 73c, 133-138.
PORTER, G., STARCEVIC, V., BERLE, D. & FENECH, P. 2010. Recognizing problem video game use. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 44, 120-8.
PRIMACK, B. A., CARROLL, M. V., MCNAMARA, M., KLEM, M. L., KING, B., RICH, M. O., CHAN, C. W. & NAYAK, S. 2012. Role of Video Games in Improving Health-Related Outcomes: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 42, 630-638.