Should parents buy videogames for their children at Christmas?

6 12 2010

Playing videogames is arguably the most popular leisure activity in the UK. This Christmas, the sales of videogame hardware and software are likely to be astronomical. But with all the media hype surrounding the more negative aspects of videogame playing, should parents be worried about buying these games for their kids?

Videogame playing is just one of many activities that a child can do this Christmas

Videogame playing is just one of many activities that children can do this Christmas

Back in December 1993, I gave a paper on adolescent videogame addiction at the British Psychological Society Conference that received more publicity than I have ever received for any other piece of research I have ever carried out. It received blanket coverage in all the tabloid and broadsheet newspapers as well as endless radio and television coverage including all the major national news bulletins. In January 1994, I received a letter from a leading videogame company complaining that publication of my mid-December report may have affected their Christmas sales of videogames. The validity of my research was also called into question.

Since 1993, I have arguably published more research papers on videogame addiction than any other academic in the world. However, just because my research has consistently identified a small number of individuals who appear to be addicted to videogames does not mean that I am in any way ‘anti-videogames’. I have three children (aged 9, 11 and 14 years) and they are all archetypal ‘screenagers’ who spend a lot of time playing videogames. I certainly have the view that the positives of playing videogames far outweigh the negatives. I’ve written many articles pointing out the benefits of videogame playing including educational benefits, health benefits, therapeutic benefits, and psychomotor benefits (e.g., hand-eye co-ordination and increased reaction times).

So when it comes to videogames, what should parents do? To begin with parents should actually find out what videogames their children are actually playing! All videogames now feature the PEGI rating system (Pan European Game Information), which not only contains a specific age rating but also specific game content (such as whether the videogame features sex, violence, fear, swearing, gambling, discrimination, etc.). Parents may find that some videogames contain material that they would prefer their children not to be having exposure to. If parents have objections to the content of the games they should facilitate discussion with their kids about this, and if appropriate, have a few rules. For instance, parents should: (i) help choose suitable games that are still fun for their children to play, (ii) talk about the content of the games so that children understand the difference between make-believe and reality, (iii) discourage solitary game playing for long periods, (iv) follow recommendations on the possible risks outlined by videogame manufacturers, and (v) ensure that children have plenty of other activities to pursue in their free time besides the playing of videogames.

It needs to be remembered that videogame playing is just one of many activities that a child can do alongside sporting activities, school clubs, reading, watching television, and socialising with their friends. These can all contribute to a balanced recreational diet. But when does it become a problem? The most asked question a parent wants answering is ‘How much videogame playing is too much?’ To help answer this question, I devised a simple checklist. It is designed to check if a child’s videogame playing is getting out of hand. Ask yourself these simple questions. Does your child:

  • Play videogames almost every day?
  • Often play videogames for long periods (over 3 to 4 hours at a time)? 
  • Play videogames for excitement or ‘buzz’?
  • Get restless, irritable, and moody if they can’t play videogames?
  • Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play videogames?
  • Play videogames instead of doing their homework?
  • Try to cut down their videogame playing but can’t?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to more than four of these questions, then your child may be playing too much and you need to foster other activities to replace the videogame playing. Thankfully, very few children are genuinely addicted to videogames, but as responsible parents it is our job to monitor their videogame playing and there are now plenty of games that we can play along too. I’m sure many of them will be in this year’s Christmas stockings!

Professor Mark Griffiths is Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. He can be seen on tonight’s Panorama on BBC1 at 8.30pm talking about videogame addiction in young people.

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