When should children be allowed to play video games? This is a difficult question with which many parents struggle and can apply to many forms of technology (e.g., TV, computer, cell phones, iPods). Such issues will probably grow thornier as technology advances and becomes even more ubiquitous.
As a kid, I grew up playing video games – from Pong onward. I’ve always both enjoyed and been fascinated by them. I even did my dissertation research on the effects of video game violence on kids. So, I have a lot of knowledge about this topic given that I’m a life-long gamer, a psychologist who has researched their effects, and, now, a parent of two boys.
First off, video games are not inherently good or bad – they are just a medium, like TV, books, the Internet, and so on. They should not be categorically vilified. Like movies and books, there are games that educate and enlighten and there are games that pander to our primitive fascination with sex and violence.
There is very little research on the effects of these games on very young children, and that research is correlational as it would unethical to randomly assign 2-year-olds to either World Of Warcraft Arena Duos Get Ready, New Tournament GCDTV 2v2 Winter Brawl Has Been Announced playing video games 2 hours per day or none at all. Exposing kids to violent video games as part of a research experiment is, of course, out of the question. However, I have heard of very young kids, even infants, being exposed to games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Halo. I know for a fact that some kids as young as age 3 are even playing such games.
TV, Video Games, and ADD/ADHD
The brains of young children are developing rapidly and there is some research to suggest that exposure to highly stimulating media, such as TV, might “wire” the brains of young children such that they grow accustomed to intense environments. Such children might become bored and inattentive when in less stimulating (or traditional) environments – like listening to a teacher give a lecture in class. So, there is a hypothesis (and some correlational research to support) that children exposed to TV at young ages are more likely to be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD when they become older. If you’ve watched some of those Baby Einstein videos, you know what I mean! The correlational finding between TV viewing at young ages and ADD/ADHD would likely apply to video games as well.
Video Games as a Brain Booster?
Looking at things from a different perspective, the research on neuroplasticity indicates that the brain really is like a muscle in that it can grow in response to stimuli. Video games contain rich environments with many complex cognitive challenges that give brains quite a workout. There is a growing body of research to support that video game play improves cognitive functioning in many areas. Video or computer games are listed as one of 6 known “brain boosters” in the Feb/Mar 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind. Indeed, Microsoft is looking into the educational benefits of typical video games.