Exploring the complex influence of video games on young minds

This story was originally published in our September/October 2022 issue as ‘(Virtual) Reality Check’. click here to subscribe to read more stories like this.

My husband and I were out for dinner with our son, Eddie, who was 2 at the time, when a couple walked in with a young boy wearing headphones and staring at an iPad as he walked. Throughout the meal, the boy was glued to his screen while his parents chatted kindly as if he were not there.

“What’s the point of having a kid if you don’t want to talk to him?” I said to my husband.

We have vowed not to buy an electronic device for our son until he is 30. And video games, one of the main reasons kids want these devices, are said to be verboten.

Up to now we have kept to that agreement, although it has not been easy. When other parents went out to dinner and gave their child a phone, we had to entertain our child. We had brought a knapsack filled with colored pencils, markers and spiral sketch pads with thick paper. We lugged around Jenga, Uno and Yahtzee. We made drawings and built mini fortresses from jelly packs – anything to keep our son from video games, which I saw as the devil’s poison.

Indeed, there is a lot of research, such as an October 2018 meta-analysis, showing that children who play violent video games are more aggressive. Another newspaper, from September 2020 in The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychologyindicates that repeated exposure can lead to insensitivity to violence, making people less empathetic.

Video games can also be addictive, so addictive that the World Health Organization has included a condition called “gaming disorder” in its International Classification of Diseases; the American Psychiatric Association considers it a condition warranting further research. And a 2020 study published in Developmental Psychology followed 385 adolescents for six years to find that 28 percent of gamers were prone to increased levels of depression, aggression, shyness and anxiety by the end of that period.

That’s not surprising, says Douglas Gentile, who has studied developmental psychology and media violence for 30 years. Games can have a big influence and children are impressionable. So whatever the content of the game, kids are likely to learn it, Gentile says. If it is a violent game, they can learn aggression skills. And yet the same goes for useful video game elements, such as reading or math. If it’s a pro-social game, they’re likely to learn pro-social skills.

“Whatever they practice, they will learn whether they like it or not,” Gentile says. But the worst problem with gaming, at least for our kid, is one I didn’t foresee: alienation.

It took a while for Eddie to make friends at school. Now in fourth grade, he has finally forged some bonds, mainly through sports. But in their spare time, all his friends play video games and my son doesn’t. He felt like an outsider before he found these friends, and now my ban inadvertently keeps him isolated — not just from his classmates, but from the rest of modern society, it seems.

(Credit: Illustration by Kellie Jaeger/Discover)

A digital dilemma

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group for the U.S. video game industry, 76 percent of U.S. children play video games. For my son, not only did he miss playing time, but he didn’t know how to play. During the pandemic, a classmate had a virtual birthday party, where everyone was invited to play Roblox. My son and I couldn’t even find the virtual room where the game was played. While I frantically texted other moms asking how we could find his classmates, my son got angry and then upset.

Since then, he’s found a way around my ban: he plays video games at friends’ houses. I was annoyed at first, until one day he came home and told me how happy he was to be in the herd. He began to cry and remembered how much he had felt like an outsider. “Now I can play with anyone,” he said.

I was out with a co-parent last week and complained about not being able to raise my son the way I would like. If I forbid him to play video games, he wouldn’t be able to go to friends’ houses because they do that after school, or he would be isolated next to them when they were playing. Either way, he’d be missing out on an important bond.

“Don’t do to him what my parents did to me,” my friend said. Her parents forbade her to watch TV and eat sugar, so she had no idea of ​​all kinds of cultural references. “They made me feel like I was a weirdo,” she said.

Video games are now such an integral part of the social fabric that not playing them is like growing up without a TV, says Nick Bowman, a game researcher at Texas Tech University. When people talk about their childhood these days, they remember, among other things, playing video games with their parents and siblings.

“It’s a family ritual. It’s a friend ritual. The data suggests these are the things people will remember 40 years from now,” he says.

Bowman also notes that game research has evolved. For the first 20 years, studies focused on the potential harms, such as addiction and aggression. Today, games are seen for their art, their learning potential, and their ability to make people feel things. It’s not that video games don’t have ill effects. But the myopic focus on those ill effects now seems exaggerated and dated, he says.

“They don’t match the reality of the millions and millions of people who play games every day and experience none of those negative effects,” Bowman says.

Good or bad

I delved deeper into the research and saw studies that revealed the benefits of gaming. People who play video games can learn how to make good choices, says James Paul Gee, a linguist at Arizona State University and author of What video games should teach us about learning and literacy.

Most games involve simulations in which choices have to be made and players can see the consequences of their decisions, Gee adds: “It turns out that people learn to make good choices related to knowledge. If they know how to make good choices in life or in solving problems, you can give them [any] knowledge test, and they will pass.”

C. Shawn Green, a cognitive researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says asking whether video games are good or bad is like asking, “What are the effects of food on the body?” Different games have different effects on players, some good and some bad. Action games, for example, can help how we perceive and respond to stimuli around us, his research shows.

Because action games require players to respond to stimuli anywhere on the screen within seconds, playing them can improve one’s ability to pick up important information in a messy scene. Players also learn to switch from one task to another more quickly, a process that can take up to 200 milliseconds, Green says.

“What your brain actually does is switch tasks,” he says. “Playing these kinds of games reduces switching costs.”

Beyond the virtual

During a recent grocery run, I noticed the young man at the counter stuffing my groceries into paper bags. He did it with such care, making sure he chose the correct item and placed it in the bag in the direction that would achieve maximum efficiency.

“Do you play Tetris?” I asked.

“I do,” he said.

He added that he plays a lot of video games. So I asked him what I fear most when my son plays: Are the games so exciting and overexciting that everything else in life seems boring by comparison? He thought about it for a moment, with a pause. Then he said he really wants to be a surgeon – a goal far more important to him than any video game. Interestingly enough, he added that gaming can help as his fingers are now so agile that it has improved his bonding skills. Studies show this.

As I left the store, I wondered if my son had anything in life he liked more than video games, something that made real life just as exciting as the virtual one. I immediately knew what it was. It was the company of friends. He is not addicted to video games. He is addicted to company.

But aren’t we all?

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