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Playing and mastering a video game gives children a sense of powerfulnes that they may not experience at schol, with their per group or if jostling with brothers and sisters to find their place in the family A couple of years ago, I remember reading an article by Rosie Millard about a family’s descent into endless rows, parental punishments and addictive behaviour when, after years of resisting “considerable and sustained pressure from her children”, she had finally buckled to buy a Nintendo DS. I was amused by her concerns and her attempts to get the computer console out of the house after it had taken a hold over each one of her children’s lives: “The ‘toy’ was removed and placed in my desk. The children found it and hid it in their bedroom. I put it in my bag. They discovered it again . . .”

“. . . Fighting to get onto the machine was bad enough, but it was worse when they were forcibly dragged from it. Our Nintendo had taken the guise of a small but toxic drug which, little by little, was poisoning my children. When they had had their fix, they were even more frustrated and discontented than before . . . I have first-hand evidence that using a Nintendo turns my delightful, curious and funny children into argumentative demons full of aggression, wholly uninterested in anything apart from playing, and then playing some more.”

Sound familiar? Rosie Millard’s solution was to give the DS away to charity. A simple option but undoubtedly, for most, not a viable one. Life is not as easy is that.

So, how do we stop a fun hobby, just one of a number of wide-ranging activities our children are able to enjoy, into becoming an ‘addiction’ that stops them from exploring the world around them, reading, creating, and interacting socially with their peers and adults? Or, is it even right to limit or ban use of the technology that will most likely be central to their future lives and careers?

Computers are reshaping our lives and our brains, there is no doubt. There has been a continuous flow of pieces in the press discussing this and the impact – both good and bad – that portable video game consoles and computers have on this generation.

The Good

Researchers are beginning to recognise that computer games have the potential to offer positive opportunities for puzzle-solving, strategic and critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, and mathematical skills, along with visuo-motor skills like resistance to distraction and heightened peripheral vision.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, in a Telegraph article, looked at US research by Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist who runs UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. She has reviewed numerous studies on how different technologies can affect our learning: “Greenfield concluded that every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can strengthen the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of rapidly changing signals, like piloting a plane or monitoring a patient during surgery. But that has been accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

The Bad

The potentially harmful and negative effects are more often highlighted. The worries about the violence in the games, the lack of social interaction when playing in front of a screen, and the changes in behaviour after playing the games are common fears. Perhaps, one of the saddest consequences of this obsession is that it is at the expense of physical and social play which we nowadays know is key to the development of young children.

The Alliance for Childhood, a worldwide network of experts that research and campaign for the right to childhood, has written two highly respected papers on the issue of children and technology, Fool’s Gold and Tech Focus. They also acknowledge that using technology in all its different guises causes risks “to children’s physical health (including musculoskeletal injuries, vision problems, and obesity), emotional and social development (isolation, shifts toward computer-centred education, detachment from community, and the commercialisation of childhood).” They are clear in their concerns: “The reasons for reassessing the impact of the new high-tech lifestyle on children are even more urgent. Anything that contributes to a sedentary life should be examined to see if its benefits outweigh the risks . . . We remain convinced that, at the elementary school level and below, there is little evidence of lasting gains and much evidence of harm from the hours spent in front of screens.”

The Ugly

So, there are pros and cons of children playing computer games. But why are we having such a power struggle with our children about the amount of time spent on them at the expense of all else? Why are these computer games and consoles so addictive?

Numerous studies highlight the fact that it is the excitement of the video games that makes them addictive. This is hardly surprising news. Just as with the excitement of any activity that we find compulsive, playing these games causes the release of the chemical, dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a “feel good” neurotransmitter which, when released, gives us feelings of “pleasure”. We hear a lot about dopamine, particularly in relation to drug-taking, with users in search of the high but dopamine is released naturally through successful problem-solving, winning, prediction that something good is going to happen, bonding, and celebration of success.

The format and structure of many of the games have been designed so that they are very compelling. The successful stepping up of levels, the increasing complexity of each new task and problem solved boosts the release of dopamine and makes us want to continue and improve our game. The system of regular rewards and consequent sense of achievement keeps us hooked in. Playing and mastering a video game also gives children a sense of powerfulness that they may not experience at school, with their peer group or if jostling with brothers and sisters to find their place in the family.

Earlier this year, a London clinic launched the country’s first therapy programme for children addicted to computer games and the internet. Dr Richard Graham, an expert in child and teen disorders, who heads Capio Nightingale Hospital’s Young Person Technology Addiction Service says: “The problem is that some children play games like World Of Warcraft for the social contact. It gives them a sense of connection so they end up playing all the time. It’s the same buzz as playing a sport like tennis but you’re not going to be playing tennis at one in the morning . . . Technology addiction is like gambling, you end up with withdrawal symptoms such as agitation. You get hyper-stimulated so you’re always on the alert. What we need are official guidelines now on what counts as healthy or unhealthy use of technology.”

However, the ‘addiction’ that the majority of parents see in their children with consoles in their hands can normally be addressed at home.

Playing outside with friends came above playing computer games for most pupils’ ideal treat

We asked Headmaster, Nicholas Allen, to see what his pupils at Newton Prep School in Battersea had to say on the subject. Both boys and girls from Year 3 through to Year 8 were asked to complete a survey on their use of computer consoles, including the questions: whether they owned a console; how many hours during the week and weekend they played it; what rules were imposed at home; what involvement their parents had; and what (out of six choices ranging from playing computer games, playing outside with friends, making things, playing sport, reading, TV) were their most and least favourite activities as a treat. Whilst the survey doesn’t yield a conclusive analysis due to the sample size and distinctions between computers and consoles, some trends are clear and the results were interesting to see. Almost all of the children owned or played on consoles but boys spent more time on them than girls. Children were generally restricted by rules such as time limits, no violent gaming, homework must be completed first etc. Ralph Allen from Newton Prep, who so kindly collated the information, noted: “What was quite nice to see was that playing outside with friends came above playing computer games for most pupils’ ideal treat.”

As children enjoy games for the sense of power, look for activities that give a similar power through participation

A positive finding was that the vast majority of these children all understood that there had to be some limits to the use with one brave soul admitting that he even limited himself. There seemed to be a mature awareness of the consequences and effects even in those as young as seven. Although, other telling observations included: “Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, pants, pants, pants! I just think it’s not fair. I wish I could do it on weekdays.” – “No fighting over the controls.” – “The rules my parents have, I agree with because I don’t like violent games.” – “My parents make a rule – If I am naughty, I don’t get to play on it for a week.” – One boy, whose top treat was to play computer games - “Both my parents have rules because they think it ruins my life.” And, as one Year 3 boy put it – “my parents impose rules so I don’t go crazy!”

Parental involvement and interest seemed to be mostly from dads, if at all. This raises the question of whether parents should share their interest or whether it is good for children to sometimes have their own areas of expertise: “My parents don’t care about video games but I sometimes force my dad.” – “My parents are interested, only if I drag them to do it.” – “My parents do not play with me but they check what I do.” – “My dad would like to play but he can’t!”

So, here are some realistic suggestions, tried and tested by our Eds Up parents, to keep a balance and keep us all sane:

• Limits on playing time

• Reality breaks – after 20 mins to an hour of play, stop to chat to the family. This focuses the attention away from fantasy. Get them to move about, stretch, and refocus their eyes on something in the distance to stop eyestrain

• Make it a social occasion so they are not always playing on their own – either with friends or play with them so that you understand about the game and what your child is talking about

• Shared experience – whilst you are both playing, ask questions and allow them to learn the art of teaching

Give them the opportunity to switch to playing educational games on computers every so often – so that they can continue the excitement and skills, linking it in to other activities like reading etc

• Get them into sport – as children enjoy games for the sense of power and gratification it gives them and the competitive spirit, look for activities that give a similar power through participation. Sports give a similar rush as do challenging board games

• Go to a game – if they are into sport video games, go to the real thing. This gets them away from the console and gives you time to spend together and bond