Parents must devise a game plan
Computer and video games are not just evil pastimes that must be avoided at all costs. However parents must take a proactive approach when it comes to them
CHRISTMAS is coming, which means children everywhere will be compiling wish lists for presents. Top of this list for many will be the latest Xbox Kinect, which has just been launched. Up there too, no doubt, will be 'Call of Duty: Black Ops', which looks like being the biggest video game of the year and is expected to rake in an astonishing $1bn.
Lots of us parents struggle with demands for video games because we resent the amount of time our children spend in front of them. We may also struggle with the games that children want; many of the most popular ones are 18-rated but are played on a more widespread basis.
On the other hand, perhaps some of you don't give these things much thought. If you can afford to buy computer games for your children you will. You'll assume that they realise that the games are based on fantasy and not reality. Perhaps you have your head in the sand because resisting your child's demands has become too hard.
Last month I wrote in depth about how children can develop a sense of entitlement that leaves them essentially selfish and much like the proverbial spoiled brat.
Part of that feeling of entitlement is encouraged by parents giving in to children to avoid conflict. It also stems from the way global media strongly influences our children to seek what they want, when they want and how they want it.
Make no mistake, computer and video gaming are pillars of that media world which has a huge and potentially unexplored influence on children, their development and their behaviour. So if I want to retain a positive influence on my children, I have a responsibility to regulate and monitor their access to TV, the internet, computer gaming and video gaming.
If we look at the evidence of how children are affected by computer games and what role or influence we can have ourselves, then we can make educated choices about how we might resist these Christmastime demands.
Their impact is not purely negative. Some games can positively influence children. To really understand their effect, we need to consider factors such as the amount of gaming that children do, the content of the games that they play and the social context in which they play the games.
Research shows that between 93pc and 98pc of children and teenagers play video games on the internet, directly on their computer, on their phones, or on their games consoles.
Children and teenagers will, on average, clock up between 14 and 20 hours of computer or video games per week. In total, children will spend over 40 hours per week engaged with some form of digital media (that includes TV, mobile phones and social internet networking). This equates to between six and seven hours every day. In other words, our children are spending almost all their free time plugged into a digital world.
Apart from the negative effect of the sedentary nature of gaming, high levels of TV watching and computer gaming are also associated with disrupted sleep or difficulties for children in falling asleep.
The content of video games also deserves scrutiny. In March, a large analysis examined the violence in them and found that playing violent video games increases aggressive behaviour.
Playing them even for a short period of time seems to prime, or activate, the idea of violence and it seems to increase people's overall level of energy or arousal.
Secondly, when people who regularly play violent video games have been studied they are found to be more aggressive and to be less sensitive to the hurt or harm caused by violence.
In contrast, when researchers have looked at the effects of playing pro-social video games (those kinds of games that involve teamwork, or where the player gains reward for helping or working with other players) they find that this also transfers (but positively) to the real world.
Children or teenagers who played pro-social games (like Lemmings) showed greater levels of helpfulness and consideration than youngsters who had played neutral games (like Tetris). The social context of how computer games are played is also important. The Wii, for example, heavily markets the social nature of the games that can be played. It looks much better, and seems socially healthier, when we play computer games together as a family.
The Wii has effectively blasted the commonly held view of gaming being the preserve of teenagers, holed up in front of a TV, in their darkened bedroom in splendid isolation. But there are still some young people for whom this kind of gaming is a reality.
Whether played with other children or as a family, we should be mindful of the competitive element. Competition can be good for children -- it helps them develop healthy attitudes about winning and losing.
However, problems arise when too much emphasis is put on being the best. Younger children suffer lowered self-esteem when they lose, especially if parents stress winning.
Taking all this on board, we can become active consumers of video games rather than passive recipients of them and their impact. Moreover, research suggests that we, as parents, need to retain responsibility for our children's consumption of these products.
Remember -- computer and video games are not evil pastimes that need to be avoided at all costs. So let's meet our children half way on this one.