Some parenting choices are a no-brainer: having your kid eat their fruits and veggies or tucking them into bed at a reasonable hour. But as for if they should play video games (and for how long), the answer is, well, complicated.
Are video games bad for kids? It depends on who you ask. The internet is also saturated with several conflicting headlines: Some say video games make children more violent, while others tout their educational benefits.
What’s more, there’s limited research on the impact that video games have on child development. To start, it’s difficult to keep track of a child’s development over decades. And, ethically, a researcher can’t force a child to only play “Call of Duty” for the rest of their adolescence or ban a child from ever using electronics. For this reason, most studies are observational, leaving the door open for other variables to influence the findings.
The bottom line is that there is no cookie-cutter answer. But instead of throwing out every Nintendo game you own, experts advise considering other factors that can affect your decision.
Related: How harmful is screen time for kids? Not as bad as we may think
Are there some video games kids should play or avoid?
When it comes to video games, there’s no catch-all category that can be labeled either “good” or bad” for your kids. You can world-build in “Minecraft,” drive cars in “Mario Kart,” or shoot other players in “Overwatch.” You can play by yourself or connect with others online.
“There are so many kinds of games that it’s really hard to say which games are good or bad for kids,” says Katie Davis, director of the University of Washington Digital Youth Lab and author of the upcoming book “Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up.”
One type of game that’s thought to have a positive impact on kids? Exergames, like Just Dance, which provide a workout similar to exercising at a gym or running outside. In one 2016 study, children with obesity played exergames for seven weeks. A two-month follow-up showed that exergaming motivated kids to continue exercising with 96% of children who did not play sports before the study enrolled in a team.
Research also supports action video games, which require visual attention to play. Some studies show that these types of games help children with dyslexia improve their reading rate and understanding of the reading material, while others, such as EndeavorRx, is FDA-approved as a treatment option for kids age 8 and up with ADHD.
Related: Meet the first FDA-approved video game to treat kids’ ADHD
Does exposure to video game violence make children more aggressive?
Of course, there’s always the issue of violence when it comes to video games. Several older studies, including a 2010 report showed that regardless of age, sex, and culture, violent video games can make children more aggressive and less empathetic towards others. However, several experts have taken issue with this conclusion.
Christopher Ferguson, PhD, a psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., has been especially critical of the claim that exposure to video game violence is a gateway towards violent behavior. His analysis of earlier studies on the subject argued that violent behavior was linked more towards family violence and innate aggression rather than violent gaming.
Ash Brandin, a middle school teacher and Instagram influencer behind @TheGamerEducator account, agrees. “The relationship of aggressive behavior and desensitization of violence are probably the biggest misconceptions and those really hinge on some studies that came out in the very early 2000s,” they say. They’ve largely been debunked, but they’re still widely cited to this day.”
Not only has more recent research found no link between violent video games and hostile behavior, but there is evidence to suggest that playing these types of games could be a way to relieve long-term stress. Case in point: A 2010 study on adults showed that after completing a stressful task, participants were less bitter and depressed when they got to take their frustrations out on a violent video game.
More recently, a 2021 study on adolescents found a decrease in negative emotions like aggression and anger when playing violent video games.
Related: Teens need more sleep—and using bright light therapy could help
How to decide what video game your child should play
Brandin recommends looking at the rating systems on games when deciding what games kids should play. “The ESRB ratings are very accurate and are designed for caregivers in mind,” they say. The ratings can tell you whether a game has high levels of violence or sexual content.
On top of the ratings, Davis advises that you ask yourself certain questions to get a sense on whether a game is age appropriate. These include:
- Do I need to be actively supervising them while playing?
- Can they operate the mouse or game controller?
- Do they understand the concept of the game?
- Who is in control of this gaming experience?
- Is it a single player game or are you playing with strangers online?
Are video games good for you?
Research suggests there are some positive benefits in playing video games. Video games can help with problem-solving and becoming resilient under pressure. They are also associated with mental health and social benefits—a stark contrast to the stereotypical lone gamer holed up in their room all day.
Cognitive benefits of video games
Video games may also increase your brainpower. A May 2022 study reported an association between video gaming and increased IQ in children, but not for those who mainly watched TV or used social media. While not in children, a separate 2022 research study scanned the brains of video-game playing college students and found increased brain activity in regions involved in processing visual and motor stimuli. This translated to faster and more accurate decision-making skills than people who did not regularly play.
More recently, the National Institute of Health published a study on video game effects on children. They found that kids who played video games for three hours a day or more did cognitively better on tests involving working memory and response inhibition (the ability to ignore outside distractions).
However, like most video game studies, the results are correlational. “Children that already have executive functioning strengths like improved working memory are more likely to play video games because they’re better at them,” notes Cara Goodwin, PhD, a psychologist specializing in child development who is known as the Parenting Translator. “And that could actually be the cause rather than video games.”
Skill-building benefits of video games
Another perk of kids playing video games? They can teach them to persevere. Think about a kid on a mission to pass the next level in a game before dinner. While the game can be viewed as a distraction, you can also see it as a way for your child to skill build. “Kids love to learn, but only when it’s learning things they’re interested in doing,” says Brandin.
Brandin adds that some video games can be used as another tool to motivate kids to persist with interests, while teaching children skills important to society like coding or learning a second language.
“Building a structure in ‘Minecraft’ is an example of problem-solving,” says Brandin. “So if we view gaming as a potential and valid use of time, then we’re able to treat it with the same neutrality that we might treat other methods of learning.”
Video games can help with parenting
Everyone’s situation is unique. Video games may be a safer alternative to occupy a kid’s time if they don’t have a backyard or don’t live in a safe neighborhood to play outside. And while it’s not the most ideal solution, if you need to take a call for work or cook dinner, having a child play video games is not the worst thing you can do as a parent.
“The time spent playing video games is going to be very different from family to family,” says Davis. “If kids use a device for two or even three hours or more a day, it’s not damaging their kid anymore than a family who doesn’t let their kid have any screen time.”
Katie Davis is the director of the University of Washington Digital Youth Lab and author of the upcoming book Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up.
Christopher Ferguson, PhD, is a psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in child development who is known as the Parenting Translator.
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