Neelima Rajen was extremely irritated. It was way past 9pm and her seven-year-old son Adarsh had been playing on his video game for more than two hours. Despite pleas, bribes and threats, he was refusing to go to bed. “Maybe it was my mistake buying it for him for his birthday,’’ says the 33-year-old Sharjah-based mother. “But he told me that all his friends had it and it used to tug my heart when I’d see him look over the shoulders of his friends as they were playing with their video games.’’
However, since she bought it for him last September, Adarsh has not been playing with anything else, she complains. “In fact, he doesn’t mind if I don’t tell him a bedtime story – something he used to insist on every night – preferring instead to play some games on his console before he hits the pillow.’’
While train sets and dolls once dominated children’s wish lists, more kids than ever look forward to owning the latest computer game or the newest console. But there’s an element of worry associated with computer gaming – more than a quarter (27 per cent) of parents of children under 18 surveyed by the toys and games company Hasbro recently believed their kids played too many video games. But are parents right to be concerned? Not if they ensure their kid’s computer gaming is done in moderation, says psychologist and play expert Dr Amanda Gummer.
“I think computer gaming isn’t as bad as some people fear,” says Dr Gummer, founder of the Good Toy Guide (www.goodtoyguide.com). She warns that much depends on the game a child wants to play, and parents should be vigilant about age ratings on games, as those with older ratings can have adult themes and violence. “Obviously it’s a bad idea to let a seven-year-old child play a violent 18-category game. It’s about using these games responsibly,” she says. “As part of a balanced play diet, games have their place – they’re quite good for reaction speed, strategy and competition, and those kind of things can really benefit kids.”
Don’t rule out old-fashioned fun
Traditional board games also offer competition and strategy, coupled with real social interaction that computer games often don’t have, Dr Gummer says. “Board games may possibly be better for social development, but they rarely have the need for reaction speed and the high-tech aspect. But sitting your child in front of a game console for hours on end and then letting them play computer games and watch TV is not a balanced play diet.” She says parents need to feel confident enough to set boundaries for their children and enforce them so kids are spending a sensible amount of time playing electronic games.
“They need to treat it in the same way as they’d treat their children eating chocolates – parents wouldn’t let their kids eat a whole box of chocolates in one go.” However, she warns against banning computer games outright. “They become forbidden fruit and it’s counter-productive. Tell them if they can show they can use the game responsibly, that’s fine; but if they can’t, then it’ll be limited.
It’s just sensible parenting – it’s the same with screen time, sweets, whatever it is they do to excess that might impact negatively on the rest of their lives. “The danger comes when kids are using computer games to excess, excluding other types of play and socialising, and being allowed access to material that’s age inappropriate. Balance it out with other things – it’s all about good parenting and managing their use.”
Everything in moderation
Jo Twist, chief executive of the trade body for the video games and interactive entertainment industry UKIE (association for UK Interactive Entertainment), agrees that while computer games can be an important learning tool, they shouldn’t be overused. “Play is such an important part of learning, but anything that’s overdone doesn’t make a balanced lifestyle,” she says. “If you watch too much TV or sit around too much, it’s the same – everything in moderation.”
She stresses parents can use tools such as parental locks and passwords on consoles, mobile phones and tablets to control how much children use them. Parents also need to be mindful of the age ratings on games, she says, and even try the games themselves to get more understanding of whether they’re appropriate for their child. The App Store also has ratings and explanations of what’s in games, and Jo says parents should make an effort to understand the nature of games their child wants to download.
And it’s no excuse for parents to say they simply don’t understand the technology, she insists. “We’re living in a digital world now – all kids have access to computers at school, this is the future. Sometimes I think parents are worried about being shown up or that they don’t know the answer. But the manufacturers want these games to be easy to control, and parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions about them.”
Jo points out that playing games together is a great way to spend time. “There are positive aspects to playing as a family – there are strategy games where you’re problem-solving as a family, and talking through decisions with your child. That’s all part of the learning process – understanding consequences of decisions and strategic thinking is really important in a child’s life.”
Dr Richard House, a UK-based expert in early years education, believes that young children – particularly those in the age group of three to nine – need adult supervision and interaction to grow up into healthy individuals. He says, “Young children need an adult with whom they can interact and explore the world at this crucial stage of development, and it’s important that they’re given the opportunity to be physically active, preferably outdoors.
“There can be negative consequences in allowing too much TV or too many computer games and the brain can become abnormally wired by the release of chemicals during these activities. Also, when children are living in this unreal world, they aren’t interacting or having conversations and the development of social, language and empathy skills may suffer.’’ So is it OK for a child to say he’s bored? Yes, says Dr House. “For a child to be bored under ‘healthy’ circumstances can be a good thing. If the child is in a position where he has to use his own imagination and inner resources in thinking of something to do, his creative development will be encouraged.
“He may pick up his toys and enter an imaginary world where he could develop and use all kinds of abstract skills, such as recall, prediction, evaluation, and reasoning. He may start to draw and as well as developing eye/hand coordination, he may work out problems and see connections with real life. “He may read a book or tell a story and despite our wonderful technological world, reading a book is still regarded as the best way to develop the mind.’’
Names changed on request