Screening the young for games addictions

Tue, Feb 3, 2009, 00:00

Gaming consoles are a total joy for children, but a very ambiguous issue for their parents, writes SHEILA WAYMAN.

WE HELD out for a number of years against the idea of buying any sort of computer gaming gadget. The television and home computer seemed quite enough “screen time” for the two boys.

But we relented for the eldest one’s 10th birthday at the end of last year and the first gaming console entered the house, which was pretty late by the standard of his peers.

Then Santa, seeing that parental resolve had crumbled, put one in the seven-year-old’s stocking a few weeks later.

The result? For the boys, absolute joy at their new playthings; for the parents, a niggling doubt that we had let the genie out of the bottle. Had we started down a slippery slope, even though Nintendo DS is surely at the “benign” end of the gaming spectrum?

Opportunity for use of the gaming consoles is limited by the range of other activities in their lives, so there really is no major issue. Yet, sometimes the sight of them engrossed in these tiny screens makes me uneasy and irritated. And telling them it’s time to put them away can end in a tussle of wills. It’s like a foretaste of what is to come. Years of issues seem to stretch ahead as we raise two members of the “screen generation”.

Recent research in Britain found children were spending nearly six hours a day on computers, televisions and game consoles. Children from the age of seven are building multimedia hubs in their rooms, with games consoles, internet access and MP3 players, which they wake up to in the morning and fall asleep to at night.

Meanwhile, a new book points out that British children are spending twice as much time with screens as with their teachers. Consumer Kids, written by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, highlights the opportunity this amount of exposure gives for relentless, direct marketing to impressionable minds.

Some of the statistics from Britain seem hard to believe, such as a quarter of five-year-olds having access to the internet in their bedroom, and that not only 90 per cent of teenagers have a television in their room, but so do 60 per cent of five- to six-year-olds. However, there’s no reason to believe screens are much less pervasive in children’s lives here.

Is anxiety about this inexorable encroachment of screens justified, or just a “fuddy duddy” response? There are the obvious concerns about not enough exercise, violent games and online bullies and predators, but what about the more pedantic consideration that the children could be doing something better with their time?

Parents and schools have been far too complacent about the effect of mind-numbing computer games, says teacher Tom Maher. He believes the “unflagged” addictive nature of these games now poses a much higher risk of debilitating young people’s lives than alcohol, tobacco and narcotics, which they are warned about.

Working in London, his concerns were triggered when a class of highly motivated Vietnamese teenagers he was teaching were “derailed” by the many hours they were spending playing a compulsive new computer game, often through the night.

One particularly bright pupil, with his sights set on a place at Oxford or Cambridge universities, explained how good he was becoming at this particular game, having spent 17 hours practising it over the weekend in the run-up to his university interview.

This is a small but telling example of how such games can “devour” time at a crucial stage in young people’s lives.

Research from the University of Texas published in 2007 in the Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, found that adolescent gamers spent 30 per cent less time reading and 34 per cent less time doing homework, compared with non-gamers.

A TCD graduate from Abbeyleix, and now founder/director of British Home Tutors in London, Maher’s other key concerns are the effect of screen technology on the developing brain and the way that its culture is increasingly producing “isolated and unempathetic people’’. He refers to the argument made by Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, that children’s brains are being exposed to such strong sensory stimuli by these games that their attention span is shortened and they are easily bored at school.

While television and the internet can both clearly be very educational, Maher argues that the majority of computer games are mind-numbing. They are taking the place of books, for which readers may also be stationary and solitary, but at least they can empathise with the characters they are reading about. It is estimated that by 2011, more will be spent on computer games than on books.

ALTHOUGH THERE are educational games on the market, “if you watch what the kids are playing, it’s pretty mindless stuff”, he says. The gaming industry’s core client “is the slightly gawky male who is willing to throw away a large chunk of his life”. At a time when it’s a near-worldwide phenomenon that girls are outperforming boys in education, he hopes that females “don’t get dragged into gaming” in the same way.

Maher wants to stimulate more debate and questioning by teachers and parents about the effects of computer gaming, as well as over-reliance on the internet, on the educational performance of boys in particular.

“As an economy we need independent, investigative minds coming through and not group-think zombies who emphasise speed of answers over thoroughness,” he says.

From addressing school conferences and lobbying the powerful Women’s Institute in the UK, he has found the issue strikes a chord. He concedes that, coming from the history/arts/literature side, he probably has a bias against “techno barbarism”, but that it is time it stops pushing everybody else off the pitch.

Psychologist Owen Connolly, who runs a counselling centre in Dublin, is less alarmist about the screen generation. As parents, “we are preparing children for a future and not our past”, he points out.

However, he does recommend that children under three are kept away from television, as their rapidly developing brains need human interaction. Without being black and white about it, “to give television as a substitute for engagement with the child is what’s wrong”, he explains.

When it comes to any sort of screen, it’s interaction for the older child that is important. “If there isn’t time for parent-child engagement and there is some interactive screen play facility, then fine, there’s no problem with that.”

Some youngsters thrive in robust, physical play, and more cautious kids can do really well in front of a screen, he points out. The vital part is the interaction, “because what you are trying to do is to develop the brain function. The more you engage very early on, the more brain activity that is allowed to be active in the child. The more passive their lifestyle early on in life, the less engaging they become as older adults. They become more fearful.”

Like many other aspects of parenting, when it comes to screen time it is a matter of setting boundaries. This generation of children has been given the freedom to demand things, without learning responsibilities, he suggests.

So all these new technology gadgets are fine in moderation? “All these things, under supervision,” he replies. “If you as a parent can say, ‘This is what we will get and these are the conditions – so here is the freedom but here are the responsibilities.’ It is important they have boundaries.”

He advises parents to keep televisions and computers out of children’s bedrooms. “You are giving yourself enough trouble with anything like that outside the bedroom. Put it in the bedroom, and you are going to give yourself mega trouble.”

In her latest book, Detoxing Childhood – What Parents Need to Know to Raise Bright Balanced Children, Sue Palmer devotes a whole section to “Detoxing the Electronic Village”.

“If I could make one change to modern children’s lifestyles it would be to get the TVs, and all the other electrical stuff, out of the bedrooms,” she writes.

Once basic neural pathways are laid down in a child’s brain, there’s a place for screen-based entertainment and communication, she says. But her advice to parents is:

  • Stick with real life for at least the first three years;
  • Place firm limits (an hour a day at most) on computer use until children are around eight or nine, and well on the way to being readers and writers;
  • Limit time spent in virtual worlds until children are well into their teens.

For some teenagers, and indeed adults, too much time in the virtual world can leave them unable to cope with the real world. Keeping a balance between children’s engagement with screen and with actual, physical people is “really, really important”, Connolly stresses.

He knows men in their 30s who are hermits and will not stir outside their room because it has become their “safe place”. Their whole day will consist of watching television or being on the computer – and the seeds of that dysfunction can go back to childhood.

From the very beginning of a child’s life, “you want to have your child feel safe outside with you, engaging with other human beings in any setting – that is the best thing to do’’, says Connolly. They will then have the security to deal with people as they grow.

It’s too much screen time in solitude that parents need to steer children away from. Yet he finds it “unbelievable” how little some parents know their own children. “They are not getting into where the child is.”

Connolly sums up his advice for parents: “Don’t have your children fearful of the world; engage them with the world and then give them the space to be interactive with the mechanics of the new world.”

Get them while they're young - or those vital boundaries will be harder to lay down

ELAINE SMITH had some reservations about buying gaming consoles for her three eldest children last summer, but they had a long trip to France ahead and she thought it would be a good way to keep them entertained.

“I didn’t want them stuck to them all the time,” she says. But now, with prudent rules in place at their home in Mornington, Co Meath, she has no worries about the use of Nintendos by seven-year-old Ciarán and six-year-old twins James and Aaron. Their sister Aimee (four), was put out at not getting one, but her mother reckons she is too young.

“They are not allowed them in their bedrooms during school nights – otherwise they’d be playing them until 10 or 11 at night,” says Elaine. During the week they are allowed no more than an hour a day on them, and only between completion of homework and dinner time.

Although restrictions are lifted at the weekends, the boys have so many other activities going on there’s no chance that they’ll be playing them for hours on end. “They don’t have violent games, and some are very educational, such as Animal Genius, which they love and I find it good for hand-to-eye co-ordination.”

She sees no problem with children using these consoles, as long as they are supervised. “What is the point of being a parent if you’re not parenting?” Being able to remove the consoles as a punishment is very handy, she adds.

While many schools have banned gaming consoles, not all do. One mother of two boys, aged five and eight, says a lot of their classmates bring consoles to their Co Meath school on a daily basis. While she strictly controls the use of them in her house, “I struggle most mornings/evenings with our boys crying that X is allowed to bring their console to school.

“I don’t mind kids having consoles, but setting time limits are crucial,” she says. “For example, our boys have them at the weekends only.

“Our eldest was probably five when he first got to try out my husband’s PlayStation 1. At present they have Nintendo DSs and PSPs, plus an old PS2 (hardly used at all). I have to say that since the evenings have started to get longer they are inclined to be outdoors now much more; they are also into the usual sports, hurling and football.”

Fretting about a child spending a few extra hours on an innocent gaming console may seem petty to parents who are struggling with teenagers over much more complex “screen issues”. But if you don’t set boundaries for the use of screens from an early age, it’s going to be a near impossible task to introduce them when they’re teenagers.

Psychologist Owen Connolly advocates sitting down with children, agreeing times at which they can use the screens, writing it down, and having it signed by both parent and child.

It might not be a bad idea either to monitor the time us parents spend in front of the TV, on laptops, checking e-mail, web browsing, playing on the Wii and hooked up to the iPod . . .

It’s not just children who are retreating from family life.