Video games continue to be wildly popular, especially among young people. Some parents may have noticed a game or two at the top of their child’s holiday wish list. And why not? Some video games are educational, others require significant hand-eye dexterity, a few demand moderate-to-high levels of physical activity, and practically all are fun. But like anything that is fun and produces pleasure, video games can be addicting. More addicting, Caitlin Gibson concludes, than ever before:

Video games are nothing new, and neither are reports of game addiction. But today’s most popular games are wholly immersive: Vast digital landscapes unfold in eye-popping detail, nuanced characters evolve from one level to the next. These games are deliberately designed, with the help of psychology consultants, to make players want to keep playing, and they are available on every platform — gaming consoles, computers, smartphones. Today’s teens are more tethered to this technology than any previous generation; these so-called “digital natives” have been playing more sophisticated games at younger ages than their parents ever did.

 

Gibson says parents who worry about their children withdrawing socially as they get sucked deeper into their video games may be missing an important and alluring point:

The games have been criticized as an escape from human interaction, but some offer a different sort of social connection: MMOs — or massively multiplayer online games — allow gamers to play together from any place at any time, and many describe a powerful sense of attachment to those who share this virtual realm. Logging off is that much harder for kids who feel a very real bond to their online friends and teammates.

The result, experts say, is a steep rise in the number of parents worried that their kids are in fact addicted, or at least compulsively devoted, to the games.

 

Video games challenge today’s parents of screen-obsessed children as much as texting and social media. (As we learned recently on The PediaBlog, parents can be equally plugged in and obsessed with their screens.) When is too much really too much? Gibson brings us on a family’s harrowing ride that serves as a cautionary tale, which I encourage everyone to read here for a better understanding of the physiologic effects of video gaming. And affected individuals often fit a profile:

Boys tend to be more susceptible to compulsive gaming than girls, but any kid who is trying to avoid overwhelming stress — bullies at school, a difficult home environment, social anxiety — might be especially drawn to video games. Experts also see a correlation between obsessive video game use and traits associated with autism, attention deficit disorders, anxiety and depression, although the exact nature of the connection is not fully understood.

 

When you think about it, most video game systems, and perhaps the majority of the games, were bought and paid for by parents rather than the kids who play them. Therefore, it’s the parent’s responsibility to control how much time is spent playing video games, what games are being played, and with whom. Parents should make it clear to their children that what they bring into the home they can also take out. If the kids step out of line and break the rules established at the start, the parents need to follow through on the threat and unplug or remove the device. I’ve heard parents complain about their son’s video game obsession as if they have no power to change it. Parents have all the power! For Nick Granthum, who reviewed “9 of the Most Popular Video Games for Kids” in October, it’s all about balance:

Video games and especially video games for kids can be quite a fiery topic. Do they enhance intelligence? Are they too violent? Do kids spend too much time in front of the television? While there is plenty of research to back nearly every conflicting viewpoint, for me it’s all about balance. Find the right game, set sensible boundaries, and there is no doubt that your child will benefit, and thoroughly enjoy their gaming experience.

 

There is no shortage of online video game buying guides and reviews. Common Sense Media scores video games for all ages based on “challenging, fun, and age-appropriate” criteria here. Reviews and recommendations from Consumer Reports here, My Kids Time here, and the “10 Educational Video Games Your Kids Will Love” from How Stuff Works here can help parents choose — or help their children choose — the best games to buy this holiday season.

 

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