Do you find your kids prioritizing video games, rushing to turn on the PS5 right when they get home from school? Or do they roll their eyes and groan when you ask them to turn off their Nintendo Switch at the dinner table? Chances are, if you’re a parent, you’ve encountered scenarios like these before—if not in your own family, certainly in those of your neighbors, friends, or child’s classmates at school. Whether we as parents like it or not, video games are as common as ever with kids and likely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So, what does the medical community have to say about kids playing video games? Until recently, there were very few high-quality studies looking at the effects of playing video games on growing children, and we, as pediatricians, often resorted to anecdotal experiences when counseling families. Thanks to increased attention over the past decade, in addition to some dedicated health research funding, we’ve collected meaningful data that helps us give proper attention to this question that many parents share.
Beyond simply being a fun activity, playing video games can provide other benefits to kids as well. Many games encourage problem-solving, working memory, and information-processing skills. Others, such as action games, foster hand-eye coordination, which can potentially translate to the real world, as well. Video games can also serve as creative outlets and allow kids to explore their identities and interests in a virtual space free from judgment or discrimination. Additionally, video games can foster social connections similar to social media, which has become increasingly important during the ongoing COVID pandemic.
One of parents’ biggest concerns with video games relates to violence—and for a good reason! Recent studies have shown that long-term exposure to violent video games can contribute to aggressive behaviors in children and adolescents. As with social media, video games can also open up avenues for cyberbullying, which can hugely impact the mental health of children and adolescents. Playing video games can also be quite addictive, which can lead to social isolation and poor physical health. In addition, playing video games contributes to higher amounts of daily screen time and, if played at night, can lead to significant sleep disturbances.
Keeping Kids Safe While Playing Video Games
It all comes down to that, as with most things in life, video games are neither inherently good nor bad, and it comes down to how we allow our kids to use them. First, before purchasing any video game, it’s important to check the game’s ESRB rating to determine if it is age-appropriate for your child.
Additionally, parents should check to see if the game has any online functionality; online games can be a potentially dangerous portal for meeting strangers from across the world. Luckily, almost every console today has parental control options, which allow parents to limit these online functions or turn them off entirely. One of the best ways to promote safety with video games, though, is for parents to engage themselves in the games their children play. Of course, you can play video games together with your child (if you’re so inclined!), but you can also watch your child as they play. Not only does this allow you to screen the game and ensure it is appropriate, but it can also be a way to bond with your child and help them process mature or challenging concepts that may arise.
In the end, knowing that the main character’s name in the “Legends of Zelda” series isn’t Zelda may seem inconsequential, but by better understanding the digital worlds your child chooses to enter, you may find yourself understanding their inner world a little better and growing closer to them as a result.