ASK BOB: What is your perspective on the advantage or disadvantage of videogames on brain functioning and does the answer differ for different levels of development or levels of brain function/disabilities? If not detrimental, is there a level/amount of usage that would be acceptable. Obviously, violent games are completely detrimental as far as we are concerned, but it is the other games that we are inquiring about.
— Sandy and Scott Hendrix
Dear Sandy and Scott,
The video game question is a really BIG question. I think the jury is still out on some of the long-term effects, but I will share some of my perceptions.
I recently was driving with friends who had their two children in the back third seat of their SUV, and I observed how quiet and content their kids were, playing their hand-held video game systems. I recalled many painful hours as a child with my sister, traveling in backseats of cars, with nothing to occupy our time other than trying to irritate each other to the point of explosion, whereupon our parents would jump all over the offending child, producing a point for the victor.
Video games can be a good source of entertainment, given the content is appropriate. I personally do not feel that adults, let alone children, should play a lot of the games because of the content. But with appropriate content, video games can be a source of entertainment that is certainly much more interactive than television.* In addition there seem to be some developmental advantages to a number of the games. Many of the games involve problem-solving, requiring the child to process information and manipulate it in working memory. There is also a motor component to video games. Manipulating the controller helps develop fine motor skills. If you watch a child simultaneously using two hands and manipulating often six or more buttons with each hand, you can see the brain learning to isolate the fingers, and you can imagine the integration and development of proprioception that is occurring with all of that information shooting between the hemispheres through the corpus callosum. This motor development can improve handwriting, typing, and piano playing, as well as many other fine motor activities. If the child is using the Nintendo Wii system, they are also engaging in gross motor activity and can, if used properly, actually develop some sports-related skills and get some degree of aerobic exercise.
Another aspect of video games is that they can assist in the development of independent play. When a young child functioning at about a three year old level has moved beyond cause and effect toys, has explored how to empty out all of your drawers and take apart anything that is not nailed down, but does not yet have the attention span to engage well with building-type toys, nor has entered the imaginary play 4’s, then introductory video systems such as the V-Smile can be quite useful. They serve the dual purpose of teaching the child how to engage in meaningful independent play and provide a conceptual foundation that will then permit them to interact with educational software.
Interactive play between young children is often a challenge. Unless an adult is available to structure the entire interaction, most little children lack the language skills and complexity of thought to interact in a peaceful, productive manner. Often video games can provide an interactive structure that permits these little ones to begin to learn how to take turns, share, and play together.
There are certainly those who object to all forms of video games on the basis that children should be interacting with adults, be outside playing, or doing something more developmentally or socially appropriate. I obviously am about as strong an advocate for parental interaction with their children as you can get, BUT to be realistic even the best of parents can’t spend every moment of their child’s waking day interacting with them, nor should they. Parents need some space, as do kids. Children need to learn how to keep themselves engaged, and they also need down time. I personally feel that between school, homework, structured sports and after school lessons, most children have far too little time to just play and be kids. I think we are structuring far too much of our children’s time. (And just for the record, I am anti-homework for most children.) Let’s give them time to play, to run around and get some exercise, and to read for fun so that they develop a love of reading.
On the negative side, video game content is of considerable concern, and parents need to check the content of all games that their children play. There is also a concern that many, if not most, of our children are developing an imbalance between their auditory and visual function. Our society has moved and continues to move into more and more of a visual society, and our children are not developing the auditory processing and conceptual function that they need in order to think, learn, and communicate properly. Video games are visual and as such help develop this imbalance. There is also the concern that some children become obsessed with video games and play them excessively and do not get the exercise they need, engage in meaningful social interaction as they should, or even attend to their school work or chores as they should.
The short answer is that some time playing appropriate video games can be a good thing, but it needs to be supervised, content-controlled, involve interaction with another child or adult whenever possible, and along with TV be limited to probably less than one hour per day. **
However, as parents, you are the experts on your children, and if you sense that video games, even for a limited time are causing problems, decrease the use.
I hope I have clarified this for you and not muddied the waters.
* NACD’s Simply Smarter sequential processing/working memory study is indicating that sequential processing skills are lower across the full spectrum of age in all individuals watching more than one hour of television a day.