Dear Santa, I want video games!

I am a child of the Nintendo generation. I remember spending hours with that grey box, blowing on the game cartridge base to keep the game from being glitchy.   Personal gaming was fascinating, innovative, and exciting.  Our whole family loved it.  In fact, my brother spent so much time playing Super Mario Bros., he actually gave himself blisters on both thumbs. Playing video games remains a hobby in our current home.  My husband and I own a gaming system, and a new video game is on my Christmas list this year.  My preschooler loves to play on the iPhone and iPad.  I am in no position to be doom and gloom for gamers.  I do, however, have parental control over our system, create limits for all members of our family, and engage cautiously.

There have been lots of studies about gaming and its effects.  What I find interesting is all the positive things about gaming.  Manipulating interactive media is going to be a critical skill for our kids to learn, and gaming is a fun way to practice.   Gaming is a wonderful social activity, allowing kids to engage in a form of fantasy play.  Developing relationships with peers of similar interest enhances self-esteem.  Studies have even suggested that individuals who are more inclined in gaming will be better surgeons due to improved hand eye coordination.  Games are being developed to help kids with medical conditions communicate and learn.  New Nintendo Wii games and XBox Kinect  are great examples of using gaming systems, or "exergaming," for possibly productive weight loss.  And, games are fun!

So, why all the negative press about video games?  As game developers and creators know very well, games are additive.  Pediatricians are really concerned about the increasing numbers of overweight kids we are seeing in our clinics.  We know sedentary kids are at increased risk of developing obesity, and gaming is a sedentary activity. Excessive gaming may be associated with ADHD.  Certain types of games, such as first-person shooter games, have been associated with aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence.  Exposure to gaming may be associated with an increased risk of dangerous behaviors.

If your child wants a video games for the Holidays, here are some suggestions of how you can keep gaming a fun and safe activity in your home.

The AAP recommends no media (TV, computing, gaming) until after the age of 2. Concerning studies have suggested that some families are allowing earlier media exposure.  I agree with the AAP that the formative years of development don’t need to be complicated with digital enhancement.  Learning to engage in independent play is such a critical, early skill that must be learned.  Developing this self-entertaining skill not possible if the majority of play is a passive activity consisting of watching pictures on the screen, regardless of the “educational content” of the program or game.  Early video systems do not help kids “learn” despite the marketing claims.

After the age of 2, what is appropriate for your family? There are many early gaming systems available including LeapFrog gaming systems, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, computer and smartphone games.  These systems are getting increasingly advanced.  Browse the web to see the pros and cons of each gaming system.  In addition, see how much online support you are easily finding for each system. Included in many early gaming systems is an online partnership for additional activities. For example, LeapFrog has coordinating non-gaming activities to do with your kids available on their website. For more advanced systems, review the capabilities to determine what options you want available (web browsing, online gaming networks, exergaming, movie streaming, DVD/blu ray, music/photo storage, wifi capability.)  All major gaming companies have extensive websites to review.

When considering games to purchase, know what the game is about. Game content can be implied from advertisements about the game.  Most of the game ads can be easily found online, check or gaming blogs.  Do you think the content is appropriate for the members of your family?  Does the game have any components that may not coincide with your family values?  After purchasing a game, as soon as the game is opened, be ready to watch your child play the game. If you find some unexpected game situations you are not comfortable with, engage in conversation with your child about those feelings.

Mind the game ratings, know what they mean. Every game is assigned a rating based on content.  Be sure that these ratings seem appropriate for the intended player.  A pre-teen/teen mind is physically unable to receive and process information like an adult.  Even though you think he is “old enough” to play a game like COD Black Ops, he or she may not be processing that input with appropriate filters.  In my opinion, “mature” or M-rated games are not appropriate for kids until late high school, if appropriate at all.

Consider what expectations you have for your family. What must be accomplished before play is allowed... homework? chores?  Explain to your kids that the gaming unit is your property and may be removed from the home at any time. If your child is unable to engage in other activities without the constant desire to get back home to game, recognize the red flag that is waving.  If you think your child is spending too much time, or too much engagement with the screen, create and enforce new boundaries.  Games are great for passing some time, but gaming should never be a replacement for interacting with your environment. I am surprised how often I am unable to have a conversation with a patient during a visit because they are allowed to stare at a personal gaming unit.  In our family, games are down when kids have the opportunity to improve and explore their social interactions with peers and adults.  That means we, as parents, need to be a model of this respectful behavior for our kids.

Set limits. The AAP recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time per day for our kids.  This includes all screens (TV, gaming, movies, internet, smartphones.) I would argue that with all the media to which kids are currently exposed, limiting gaming to one hour per day is appropriate. Gaming systems can provide very powerful motivation. Longer amounts of time can then be more effectively used as “special occasion” gaming or as a reward for responsible behavior. Consider allowing play for the equal number of minutes engaged in active play (gym class, karate class, sports practice.) There are great tools to limit playtime, such as the BOB and the Time Machine.  Consider using these tools early in your child’s gaming experience.  Enforcing limits after your child is already overly involved in gaming is much more difficult.

If engaging in online play, be cautious. This is the area of gaming that starts to make me nervous for early gamers.  I am amazed how many families allow their young child to play online without supervision.  Some parents don’t even know their kids are even playing online! I get concerned when parents are not fully aware of the capabilities of the gaming unit in their home.  Online gaming is unregulated, the language can be vulgar and repulsive.  Online gaming is certainly part one part of the gaming experience kids love, and that parents need to be most aware.

One problem...where do most families have their system? In the basement!  Consider only allowing online play in a common area of the home.  Be present by frequently walking through the gaming area.  Headsets off for online play, you should be periodically listening to the conversations.  Know your network downloading capabilities, including pay upgrades, movies, and game update downloads.  Unregulated participation can end up with a pocketbook surprise.

Control your gaming unit. If you are allowing online play in your home, review the parental controls for your system. For example, XBox Live has an online family timer and security controls.  PS3 has an online “Playstation Knowledge  Center” to learn about unit settings.   Be aware that although you may have your privacy and security settings up to date, the person with whom your child has engaged play may not have similar values. With very little effort, information on how to hack games, bypassing parental settings, is available through Google.  Bottom line... if you allow online gaming in your home, be aware. That being said, keeping lines of communication open about gaming and the games your child likes to play is important.  You can only control what happens in your own home.  Exposure to gaming and an online community may happen when your child visits other homes.

Have fun shopping for these games. Watch their faces light up, then be an active participant.  If you need additional help, here is some information on choosing good video games.  There is also a book available about all things media which may give some good ideas.  Happy Holiday season, and happy gaming!!

P.S.  I do not have any vested interest nor endorse any products mentioned in this post.