Computer Games and Children

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

As summer ends so does the opportunity to participate in many outdoor games and play.  In winter months, more and more children as well as adults may use computer and video games for recreation.  For some, these activities can become addictive and take over the time that is needed for homework, social and physical activity, family time, and even much needed sleep.  As parents, we can be more educated in the types of computer and video games we purchase for our children.  We know that not all computer and video games produce the same effects.

If we examine our children’s fascination with computer and video games within the context of play and substance dependence, we can assess when the game playing is normative and educational versus addictive.  Play is important for children’s development and learning.  During play, a child takes new knowledge and combines it with existing understanding to create new meanings and more complex understanding of the information.  Games are a common form of play and teach children valuable lessons (e.g., “to be successful, we must learn rules and procedures”).  Games teach these lessons without explicitly telling the child the information and allow learning to occur incidentally – through observation, repetition, social interaction with peers about the game, and problem-solving.

As buyers of these games, parents can be more strategic.  Research suggests that games which combine education and entertainment are positive.  Specifically, computer and video games that provide adequate and adaptive feedback on performance, have embedded cognitive strategies (e.g., repetition, rehearsal, paraphrasing, analogies and inferences), and animated graphics are good for development.  Also, they are good if they have a clear and specific goal, adequate level of complexity (not too hard or too easy), high speed, incorporate instruction, have some independence from physical laws (e.g. objects fly), and hold the child’s attention.  Research supports that these games have overall positive effects on school achievement (e.g., better attitude to learning, better self-concept), develop cognitive abilities (problem-solving, strategic planning, self-regulated learning, language acquisition), increase motivation towards learning (curiosity, challenge, control over learning), and increase attention and concentration.

Research also suggests that while there are positive effects of computer and video games, there are also negative effects.  Studies confirm that most of these games are at least, if not explicitly, aggressive (physical and verbal aggression) and children show an “acting out” reaction in the short-term.  These games are often gender biased as they favour masculinity and women are presented as victims rather than initiators of action.  Level of absorption or “immersion effect” is often a concern of parents due to the fear that the games hinder social and academic development.  Research suggests that computer and video games do not hinder participation in sports or other activities and in fact, this “immersion effect” is positive as it promotes attention and concentration skills that are extremely important in learning.

Computer and video games can, like anything else, be healthy when used in moderation.  It should be a red flag for you when you notice that your child is playing these games at the cost of other important social or recreational activities.  Similarly, be concerned if you notice that your child needs to spend more and more time on the games to get the same level of satisfaction.  Then it is probably time for a planful reduction in computer and video games and reintroduction to other forms of play.  With commitment and consistency parents can collaborate with their children to achieve this goal.