Smart Parenting and Video Games

If you don’t play games yourself, it can be intimidating to have a child who is into video games. For example, you don’t understand the hardware or the controller looks complicated. At the same time, isn’t it a little drastic to simply not allow video games in the house?

Studies show that the overwhelming majority of American children play video games. You’re also not alone if you take pleasure in seeing your young ones squeal with delight while racing mini-mushrooms through tangled forests. And, let’s face it, having your child immersed in playing a video game can be an equally welcome break for you, too!

However, as you’ve probably noticed by now, not every game that your child wants to play is “kid-friendly.” The average age of a gamer today is, believe it or not, 35 — so it stands to reason that, just like movies and television shows, some games are simply not intended for younger players. Here’s how to ensure that the games your kids play are age-appropriate.

Know the Rating and Research Further
To determine if a particular game is right for your child, start with the rating on the package. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a nonprofit organization, assigns the ratings that appear on virtually every game available for purchase or rental. The front and back of the package carry one of six age ratings, ranging from Early Childhood (EC) to Adults Only (AO). (Click here for more information about each of the ratings.) On the package’s back, next to the rating, content descriptors such as “Comic Mischief,” “Violence,” “Strong Language,” etc. explain what might have triggered the rating, and indicate what may be of interest or concern to parents.

During the process of assigning ratings, the ESRB considers many different aspects: What is the degree of intensity and realism? How much control does the player have over the action? What is the reward system? These considerations, among many others, figure into the rating that is ultimately assigned. A complete list of ESRB ratings, content descriptors and their definitions is available at ESRB’s website (www.esrb.org), where you can also search for a particular game’s rating before going to the store.

After you’ve looked up the rating, you can conduct an online search for reviews, screenshots, and video trailers of the game your child is interested in buying or renting. If you need help finding information, you can consult the Resources section of ESRB’s website, which provides direct links to a variety of helpful websites. Furthermore, talk to other parents to gather additional information.

Stand Your Ground and Set Limits
Most parents have heard their children say something like: “All of my friends get to play it! What’s the big deal? Don’t you trust me? It’s just a game!” It’s natural for kids to want what the older kids have. However, as compelling or passionate as your child’s plea may be, you shouldn’t hesitate to say “no” when a game doesn’t seem appropriate for your child. You’ll be in good company: Studies show that the overwhelming majority of parents say they never allow their children under 17 to play Mature-rated games (a rating that warns a game’s content is appropriate for ages 17 and older), although they do become a bit less restrictive once their children enter the teenage years.

Sure, many kids will argue that all the “cool” games are the ones you don’t permit, but that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of fun, popular, and suitable games for kids of all ages to play. In fact, despite the disproportionate amount of media attention they receive, Mature-rated games made up only 6% of the 1,600 ratings issued last year (2007). E for Everyone has always been ESRB’s largest rating category, and is currently its fastest growing one, too.

What’s also important is to set boundaries and make sure your kids understand them. How long are your children allowed to play? What kind of games? Don’t just put a gaming system in their bedroom and leave it at that. Rather, turn it into a structured activity and make sure play occurs in a place where you can easily pay attention to their habits.

Set Your Parental Controls
No parent can hover over their child all the time, so activating parental controls can make managing your kids’ video game playing that much easier. All new video game console systems (Microsoft Xbox 360Nintendo Wii PLAYSTATION 3) have this function, as do the newest version of Microsoft Windows Vista and handheld devices such as the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). Similar to the V-chip for television, parental control settings allow you to restrict the games that can be played on your system based on the ESRB rating you choose.

The way these settings function may vary a bit but the premise is essentially the same. For instance, say you have an 8-year-old who you feel isn’t ready for E10+ games (those appropriate for ages 10 and older). Just set the parental controls (which are password-protected) to allow games that carry ratings up through E (for ages 6 and older). This prevents your child — and his friends — from playing games rated E10+ or above on your system.

Get Involved
Most importantly, talk to your children about the games they play. Be adventurous and try playing with them. Stop being so intimidated and join them on a journey into their virtual world. Playing games can be a fun way to actually learn new skills, spend some quality downtime with your kids, and maybe even earn some bragging rights in the house.

There is a terrific book which addresses many of the issues surrounding video games. The title is Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents (iUniverse, 2008). It was written by Kourosh Dini, MD. Dr. Dini is a child psychiatrist, having done a Child Fellowship at the University of Chicago. He is also Board Certified in Psychiatry and a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. This book is the Winner of Mom’s Choice Award and Winner of Gold National Parenting Publication Award.

Dr. Dini notes the following about video games in general:

  1. Video games are tremendously varied in terms of involvement, content, and re-playability.
  2. Video games can be a source of social discussion with peers.
  3. Video games can be learning tools.
  4. Meanwhile, video games can also be used to avoid responsibilities and the difficulties inherent to development.

The following areas may become problematic:

  1. Control – If a person has an unpredictable or overwhelming environment, games can provide a form of shelter. As a result, one may avoid actively working on the making the environment a more predictable and enjoyable place.
  2. Self-esteem and Community – If a person does not feel valued or does not feel he/she has much to contribute to their peers, family, academic or work environments, one may attempt to pursue this feeling of value in another environment such as an online game world.
  3. Identity – If a person does not know who they wish to be, he or she may attempt to pursue this growth in a game world. The development of one’s identity is closely related to their association to the community.
  4. Mastery – If a person does not have a place to play and go through the natural paths of mastering something, the game worlds can offer a ready made playground to do so. As a result, one may be less inclined to attempt to play and master a skill outside of the game worlds.

Dr. Dini also has suggestions for parents and children about the use of video games.

  1. Video game play can be healthy as long as one takes care in how they are played. Likely, the most important aspect for a parent is involvement. If you can play the game alongside your child, you will have direct access to how they play and what it is about the game they value. You can also enjoy a period of bonding and have fun in the process of playing.
  2. Prior to buying a game, make sure you have either read the reviews online, played the game yourself, or at least watched some of the game play. Often, some video footage of the game is available online before a game is even released. After it is released, many players will upload video footage of the game to video sharing sites such as YouTube.
  3. Review the ESRB ratings available on every game box. The ESRB is a video game rating board which rates games similar to movies.
  4. Make sure that responsibilities – academic, home or otherwise – are clearly spelled out. Have consequences for failing to meet those responsibilities also clearly spelled out (for example, limitation or removal of game time with a return of privilege upon meeting responsibilities again).

Watch for Negative Effects

Video game and Internet addiction are not actual Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV classifications, although the American Medical Association is reviewing research in order to determine whether they should be included in the next update of the manual. Many mental health professionals feel that video games are similar to gambling as an addictive process. By some estimates, as many as 10 percent of gamers exhibit addictive behavior.

Here are some symptoms of game addiction – the more of these symptoms you can identify, the greater the need to get professional help:

  • Most non-school hours are spent on the computer or playing video games
  • Falling asleep in school
  • Falling behind with assignments
  • Worsening grades
  • Lying about computer or video game use
  • Choosing to use the computer or play video games, rather than see friends
  • Dropping out of other social groups (clubs or sports)
  • Being irritable when not playing a video game or being on the computer

There also are physical symptoms that may point to addiction:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Backaches or neck aches
  • Headaches
  • Dry eyes
  • Failure to eat regularly or neglecting personal hygiene

In the end…..

Don’t worry about understanding the newest study or crunching numbers on the latest gaming statistics: if your gut says your child isn’t old enough for a game, or that they’re playing too much, listen to it. Go to the game store with your child, pick up something you’re both interested in, and play together. Make sure he or she also has outside activities, and set limits for play time and content. Make sure you’re aware of the games your child is playing over at their friends’ houses. Watch their behavior carefully for the warning signs of game dependence. Finally, be very careful when your child is playing games online. Not comfortable with Xbox Live? Invite some of your child’s friends over to play at your house and order pizza.

 

Bahareh Talei, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist
PSY21252
Diagnostic & Counseling Center, Inc.
Phone: (818) 324-6594
Email: btalei@centerdcs.com
Website: www.centerdcs.com

Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).

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