The positive and negative effects of video games – a guide

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Carolanne Bamford-Beattie

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Positive and negative effects of video games

In this post, we explore the negatives and positives of video games on children’s development, and how to effectively moderate kids and their consoles. 

You hear yourself asking your child to come down for their dinner. Their reply? ‘One more minute!’

If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Children’s video games can be a minefield for parents to navigate. Gaming can distract kids from homework and chores, keep them cooped up indoors, and expose them to potentially dangerous content and strangers online. Summed up, they’re the perfect catalyst for family arguments and tension in the home. 

Since the very first consoles appeared in the 1970s, video games have come a long way. Now, any smart device provides an opportunity for gaming. With so much opportunity and choice to play, it’s natural to have concerns about the potential negative effects video games can have on children’s health and their developing young minds.

Let’s start from the top – literally. What are the effects of video games on children’s brains?

Our early years are when our brains are at their most elastic. Young children soak up information like sponges as their neural pathways set up for the future. At this critical juncture, parents are rightly concerned with striking the right balance to ensure their child’s healthy cognitive development.

When it comes to the research, it’s conclusive that video games affect the structure and shape of the brain. A scary thought indeed. But, before you run to hide the devices, let’s take a look at how those changes take place. 

Researchers in China monitored the brains of student gamers who were playing on average ten hours a day. One of the most shocking findings from their MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) work was that those students had less grey matter than their more moderate playing contemporaries (2 hours a day). It’s the grey matter in our brains that allows us to control movements, memories and emotions. This is thought to be in development until right up until our early twenties. Good reason to press pause on the playing, right? 

Well, it’s not all negative. Studies have also shown that regular video gaming has a positive effect on areas of the brain that control attention and visuospatial perception skills. Used in moderation, video games can help tune up the brain’s reasoning and problem solving capacities. Better hand-eye coordination and perception skills can all be developed as well as the ability to process information quickly, make decisions and multitask. 

While reviews of multiple published studies concluded that those who game regularly showed signs of enlarged hippocampuses (the structure in the brain that’s involved in the visuospatial skills we mentioned earlier), there were also additional structural changes in the brains of gamers that are associated with reward, learning and motivation. 

Are video games bad for children’s mental health?

The short answer is yes, they can be. “Internet Gaming Disorder” is the term coined to describe the structural and functional changes within the brain’s reward system. On a neural level, these changes are the same as those seen in other addictions, and the disorder has been recognised and classified by The World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Signs of Internet Gaming Disorder include, problems at school and home, needing to play to feel good, and losing interest in things a child once loved to do.

For children with existing behavioural issues, or aggressive personalities, video games can also have a negative effect on their emotional development. Gaming releases hormones, including dopamine and ‘withdrawal’ from it can cause additional problems with behaviour at home and school.

What other physical effects do video games have on children?

In addition to the impact gaming has on the brain, researchers in China have issued warnings over the repetitive use of screens and children’s developing eyesight. 

Myopia, or nearsightedness (where you see things clearly up close, but not so well at a distance) is on the increase in young people. During puberty and even up to our early twenties, our eyes are still growing and developing, leading scientists to focus on the links between screen time and eyesight.

While Chinese authorities have taken the video games industry to task over the supposed links between Myopia and gaming, others aren’t so sure of the correlation. In an article shared by The Washington Post, research showed that any ‘near work’ (where children spend long hours focusing or ‘cramming’ on a screen), can contribute to the condition. Not only was the duration of ‘near work’ an issue, but the fact that spending long hours at a screen stops children from being outside in natural sunlight. It is thought that the eye needs the exposure to outdoors to enable its structures to continue to grow and develop healthily.

That leads us to another negative effect of spending long hours playing video games – a lack of physical outdoor activity. According to Heart UK, one in six children in the UK has a Vitamin D deficiency. Spending time in sunlight is the number one recommendation to increasing levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’. Spending time outdoors and in nature is also positively correlated to a child’s positive emotional wellbeing. Improved motor skills, healthy weight, improved muscle strength and a greater appreciation of nature and the environment. 

Studies also suggest that playing video games, especially before bedtime, can negatively affect sleep. Researchers compared the sleep quality of teenagers playing games before bed versus watching a movie. They found that sleep latency (the time it takes to nod off) was increased in the video game group, as well as less time in deep, restorative sleep.

As the video game industry grows and develops, children can come across other sources of harm, including playing with strangers and being exposed to inappropriate content. Also, the possibility of in-app purchase and the introduction of ‘loot boxes’ within smartphone gaming, increases the risk of unapproved, and unexpected(!) purchases on parents’ credit cards.

Can video games be good for children? Six positive effects of video games.

Video games are a big part of modern childhood with an estimated 9 out of 10 children playing them regularly. With so many new, exciting and viral games being released all the time – they’re a hot topic in the playground and often take a central role in children’s social play and relationships. 

As with all screen-based activities, parents are rightly nervous about allowing children too much time absorbed in a digital device. On the face of it, it’s easy to make the assumption that video games pose more negatives for children’s health than they do positives. However, played in moderation, there are some beneficial take-outs to gaming, which should give parents comfort if their children are particularly attached to their consoles and devices.

So can video games have positive benefits for children too? Let’s explore.

1.  Steady hands!

The American Psychological Foundation published data that showed surgeons who used video game technology displayed faster skills when it came to advanced procedures and made 37% fewer mistakes than their peers. These studies gave weight to the idea that regular gaming can help hone up a person’s manual dexterity, which is great for hands-on jobs and hobbies.

2. Video games can hone up strategic thinking skills

Children who regularly play video games have the opportunity to practice and finesse their strategic thinking. Think about it. In a game, you get the opportunity to try different methodologies and approaches with little to no risk. Doing this repetitively can help develop and train your brain to respond more quickly in real time situations. It’s a theory that’s used in various vocational training situations. You don’t just hop in a fighter plane and take off on your first lesson, do you? Simulations and virtual reality are regularly used to teach complex skills, including driving, and medical procedures.

3. They’re a great learning tool

Learning a language is becoming increasingly popular using gamification techniques. If your child responds well to this educational mechanic, there’s a great opportunity to use relevant games to help boost their brain power for subjects, including history, chemistry, mathematics, grammar, and more. Teachers have reported that using video game technology in the classroom can help improve test scores and retention of information in a variety of circumstances. 

4. Gaming doesn’t (always) deserve its anti-social image

Many games require complex peer-to-peer interactions, teamwork and collaboration. Balanced well with a healthy mix of ‘real life’ socialisation, they present another great way for children to continue to develop their social and work-based skills. 

Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular ‘world-building’ games has a variety of modes that will allow children to develop their creative and problem solving skills. In these types of games, many children can help tune up some of their life-skills too, including teamwork and collaboration.

5. Playing can be a form of stress relief

So much of the focus on the link between emotional health and video gaming has been centred around aggression and violence, but there is evidence to suggest the contrary. Studies show that moderate gameplaying contributes positively to children’s stress-relief and emotional stability compared to those who never play, and those who play to excess. 

6. Not all games are designed for sitting down

As our smart devices evolve, so does the integration of virtual reality. Popular ‘Geocaching’ games like Pokemon Go encourage outdoor activity as they blend the two worlds and require exploration of the environment as a key function of the way they work. 

7. Imagination stations

When older children stop their ‘pretending’, this can often signal the end of imaginative play. Video games offer the opportunity for teens to absorb themselves in another world, and keep stimulating the creative parts of their brain through play.

How long should a child be allowed to play video games?

Hopefully the positive benefits of moderate playing do provide some comfort to parents who have a dedicated gamer in the family. However, if you’re nervous of the potentially detrimental, and addictive nature of video game usage, then building a strategy to effectively moderate the time your child spends playing them is a good place to start.

To any kid, an outright ban on playing can feel like an unfair punishment, and is likely to encourage determined minds to find ways to play without your knowledge. Using games in a reward and punishment mechanic is also unlikely to be fruitful long term, setting up the perfect conditions for future arguments and bargaining. 

Working collaboratively to set limits is a great way to make a child feel involved and develop their emotional maturity, while teaching them about boundaries at the same time. 

How many times a week do you feel comfortable with your child playing? How many hours would work well in your overall family schedule? What priorities, including homework and extracurricular activities must be completed before any gaming can happen? Once you’ve mapped this out, bring the child in to decide what days and times they get to play.

A great way to find out what the games are about, and why your children are so invested in playing them, is to play together. Your child will appreciate your curiosity and you get the opportunity to see up close if the content is appropriate, and how the game works. Who knows, you might even enjoy yourself! 

A family schedule, dedicated gaming hours, and countdown prompts are all tried and tested techniques.To offer additional support and digital boundaries on gaming, apps like Kidslox can help set physical parameters and time limits on device usage.