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All to play for

With Christmas on our doorsteps, many parents' thoughts will be turning to the latest Nintendo or PlayStation console, or this year's most desirable video game.

Gail Farrell, mother of James (nine) and Harry (five) is no different. This year, James has his heart set on the new Xbox Kinect, with its snazzy motion control, while Santa will be bringing Donkey Kong for Harry to play on the family's Nintendo Wii.

A study last month in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that 75pc of our children are exposed to video gaming. A new generation is growing up where their prime way of playing involves a mechanical console and little interaction with other children. Along with this comes a growing problem with gaming binges; 23pc of young people surveyed in 2008 said they had felt addicted to video games at one time or another.

According to family therapist, Owen Connolly, from the Connolly Counselling Centre in Stillorgan, children who are more likely to become addicted to video games are often those who find it difficult to socialise with other children.

"We're moving towards a society where people will not have the same social skills other generations developed when they were younger," he says. "For many modern children, their socialisation has been with a mechanical thing, rather than with other people."

Gail's experience with her older son backs up Connolly's claims: "My concern with James is that, because he finds it difficult to socialise with other kids anyway, we're limiting him further by allowing him to play these games by himself," she says.

James began playing at the age of four on the hand-held Nintendo DS.

"At the time we didn't limit his play," Gail remembers. "But after a while he started going off the wall when he spent too much time playing. The first time I noticed it was when if something happened in the game that he didn't like, he'd throw the DS across the room. He was so frustrated."

Gail then introduced a house rule. "We started limiting time on the DS to twice a week. Then, as he got more consoles -- the PlayStation and then the Nintendo Wii -- it got out of control again. We've limited it to three days now, Tuesday, Thursday for an hour and a half, and on Saturdays he can play for anything from two to four hours."

But on the days in between, James still asks if he can play.

"If he could play video games 24/7, he would," she says. "When it's a no-play day, he'll look for alternatives, like playing on my phone or asking to go on the computer. It's bordering on an addiction."

Self-confessed gaming addict Ciara is in her mid-20s. She began playing when she was 13 and hasn't stopped since. "I can play a game for 12 hours at a time," she says. "It doesn't happen with all games, but the really successful ones drag you in and propel you forward into a story where you are the main character. It extends much further than actually playing the game itself, especially if the game requires a lot of strategy."

Ciara concurs. "You are still on edge after playing, your adrenaline is still high. With TV or movies, you tend to be static when being entertained. It kind of washes over you. With a game, you create your own enjoyment. You have a much more vested interest.

"It's been pointed out to me that my mood isn't great after bingeing on a game, especially the aggressive games, which are the most popular."

November's Journal of Youth and Adolescence study showed that of 75pc of young people exposed to gaming, 40pc played games with violent content.

Owen Connolly is adamant about the responsibility of parents when it comes to video-game content. "Any child under 10 years of age that engages with video games that have violent action in them is likely to become very disturbed in his or her thinking," he says.

"They're in what we call the 'emotional reasoning' stage of development, in other words, 'If I feel it, it must be true', so any of the experiences in these games, which are sometimes horrific, become embedded in the child. It exaggerates their image of the world, they see it as much more hostile, and they are less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy."


Older children playing violent video games may also be at risk. “There is a lot of evidence that says playing violent video games leads to violent behaviour and role play in teenagers,” says Connolly. “One part of their brain is saying it's only a game, but they often act it out beyond the confines of the game, engaging violently with their peers and not fully realising that such violence will actually hurt another person.”

However, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence study found no evidence to support a relationship between video-game violence use and subsequent aggression.

No matter how much the experts disagree on the effects of gaming, playing them has become part of family life.

"The best days of my childhood were spent on the street playing with my friends," says Gail. "But when I was young we didn't have the games that children have now.

"Maybe when James is my age he'll say the best days of his life were playing Nintendo. The world has moved on and we have to accept that."