Videomania! Do video games harm children--or help them adjust?

October 23, 1990|By Gerri Kobren

You went out and bought your kids an electronic game system, and now they'd rather play than do their homework. They delay bedtime, race away from the dinner table and talk incessantly about the Mario brothers, Princess Zelda and the Tetris wall.

The squeaks and beeps, the zaps and squeals and monotonous melodies from the computer game set are driving you nutty.

Are the games making your youngsters crazy, too?

That seems to depend on what they play and whom you ask.

Psychologist-author John Rosemond of Gastonia, N.C., says he's voice crying in the wilderness" as he describes the games as "addictive," "stress-inducing" and "often leading to explosions of frustration."

The addictive quality is in the inducement to play a game at increasing levels of difficulty, he says.

"The games have built in a scoring system with no end; when the child has achieved a skill level, then he is no longer satisfied; he has to achieve the next skill level, and when he does, is no longer satisfied. He becomes obsessed by exceeding it. This appears to me to be similar in process to becoming addicted to a chemical substance."

Hundreds of parents have written to him with "horror stories" of children who developed behavior problems after playing video games, he says. Nevertheless, he readily admits there are no scientific studies of the effects of video games and that most rTC health professionals do not share his view.

Some health professionals, in fact, see addiction and behavior problems in game-playing children as symptomatic of other problems within the family. While they do not, generally, believe children should sit in front of the tube all day, they don't blame the game when youngsters do.

"I think, to a large degree, the problem depends on the child, the age of the child, the developmental level of the child," says Dr. Alex Weintrob, a child psychologist in New York. "If the task of the child is to develop social relationships, and the child is spending the day in the house with the game, then it is beginning to interfere."

But that's not the fault of the game, Dr. Weintrob adds. "My

feeling is that it is unfair to place the burden on the game, and more fair to attribute the behavior to difficulties within the family. In most families, the parent will say, 'Turn off the game,' and unless there are difficulties in the family, the kid will turn it off."

"I think there is a potential for kids to get hooked" on electronic games, says James McGee, Ph.D., director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

"But the extent to which it becomes a really big problem depends on other factors. A child who is in a stable family, where the parents can set limits on the child's behavior and enforce those limits, where the child is doing reasonably well in school and the parents take an interest in what the child does -- I don't think it poses a greater risk than any other hobby a kid might have."

There have, however, been accounts of problems that seem at first glance to be more troublesome. For instance, a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported the case of a 12-year-old boy who was stealing money and cutting school so he could play "Ms. Pac-man" in a video arcade.

But this was a youngster with a big, strict, physically abusive father. The psychiatrist concluded that the boy's addiction to the game was a "successful adaptive response" that took him away from the turmoil at home and gave him an outlet for his own feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

But what about the violence of the games? An analysis of 180 Nintendo games showed 70 percent were "very high in violence," says Brian Sullivan, director of television research at the National Coalition on TV Violence. The advocacy group endorses some )) video games such as "Jeopardy," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Tetris" and opposes others, such as the various Super Mario Bros. and Zeldas, "Duck Hunt," "Double Dragon" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Several studies have shown that children exhibited an increase in aggressive behavior after playing violent video games, he says.

Dr. Weintrob looks at the problem from a different angle. "The games are unlikely to make a person with out violence violent," he says. "But if the child is already violent, they may -- just as violent television programs and movies may."

In any case, parents can -- and should -- be sending a counter-message, according to experts.

"Parents have the power to intercede in the meaning of the game," says Sheri Parks, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of radio, television and film at the University of Maryland College Park.

"Parents have to re-enter the play situation," she continues. "And if the parent says, 'We don't believe that's the way you should treat people,' or, 'I don't believe that would happen in real life,' the data show children will pay attention to that."

Dr. McGee points to another benefit of parental involvement. "Kids like to show off and teach their parents things," he says. "Most parents in my generation don't have a clue about computers, so the kids have something to teach them."

Solitary practice can also be beneficial.

"One child in my family was constantly being beaten at games by his brother, who was five years older," Dr. Weintrob says. "Every day for three weeks, the younger boy played with his Atari when he came home from school. Then he challenged his older brother -- and beat him. Although that might have been time taken away from other activities, there was a clear adaptive function, and it worked well."

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