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Are video games harming your kids?

A new book seeks to set the record straight

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I have three school-age children. In my view, they spend too much time on screens, most especially video games. I worry about my kids and video games, as do most parents I know.

Now look, I've been getting paid to write about video games since the 1980s. Video games help feed and clothe my kids. So, yeah, I have a vested interest in their being, broadly speaking, widely accepted in society. But that doesn't mean I'm going to abrogate my responsibility to my children, to make sure they receive a well-balanced upbringing, plenty of exercise and a varied view of what life has to offer.

I personally believe that video games are great fun and often beneficial — educationally, emotionally and socially. They are relaxing and diverting, a bit like watching TV or reading books. I wouldn't want my kids to overdo those things either.

Dr. Rachel Kowert

But games are also slightly different from more passive entertainments in that their feedback loops are powerful, especially to children. You can really get lost in a video game, and that’s a wonderful feeling. We can all get hooked on a TV series or on a book but (in my experience) nothing gets its claws into you like a video game.

Many game designers, especially on mobile games, understand the psychology of children all too well, and are skilled in designing games that coax long hours of play.

This worries me, and so I restrict the amount of time my kids can play games, while also taking careful note of the games they play. I do not allow them to spend money on in-app purchases without my permission. (I know for a fact that my 11-year-old would bankrupt me on buying FIFA 17 players, if he got half a chance.)

But that's just me. I'm not here to tell other people how to raise their kids. My rules are specific to me and my family. I don't worry too much about my kids seeing and playing violence in games, for example, something that shocks some of my adult friends. I don't have all the answers.

This is why I want to recommend A Parent's Guide to Video Games to other parents who are concerned about games. It's a well-balanced look at video games, broken down into chapters based on the most common concerns parents have about games.

Author Dr. Rachel Kowert takes a close look at addiction, aggression, cognitive development, sexism and social well-being, as well as physical and mental health.

Kowert is a research psychologist whose work is dedicated to the effects of games in society. Her previous work includes The Video Game Debate: Unraveling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games (2015) and the 2014 textbook Video Games and Social Competence.

For the first chapter on addiction, she takes a dispassionate look at what that word actually means when divorced from buzzword status, giving note to the findings of organizations like the American Psychiatric Association.

She then acknowledges that children can show signs of addictive behavior in their relationship to games, and offers medical research as well as examples of warning signs. She finally gives sound advice to parents to watch out for signs of distress and of changes in behavior.

All this is common sense, but usefully cogent in the context of many parents' lives, which are torn between all sorts of demanding responsibilities. Sometimes, we all need to be reminded to use common sense.

On the question of on-screen violence, and its potential to lead kids to act out, she presents various recent research reports that show little connection between the two, and castigates some of the wackier attempts to discover some link. However, she notes that some studies have found short-term rises in mildly violent behavior among children immediately after playing violent games.

This is the sort of observable behavior which, while relatively harmless, leads parents to worry. I’ve seen one of my kids yell “terrorists win!” while playing in the garden, something picked up from watching me play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. In that situation, I modified my behavior, not his.

Rightly, Kowert is more scathing in her chapter on sexism and misogyny in games, pointing to research that shows a link between male games players and sexist opinions, though she notes that games are not the only cultural conduits within which these ideas are rooted. She also picks out the vital stat that 63 percent of girls and women who play online games have reported experiencing sexist behavior from other players.

Her book includes a frequently asked questions section that addresses many common concerns from parents, such as "are all online gamers lonely basement dwellers?" To people who've spent their lives playing games, this sort of a question may seem positively ignorant, but it's worth remembering that not all parents are familiar with every sector of popular culture.

Gaming has often been badly misrepresented in popular entertainment. Vicious hate groups like GamerGate have done little to assuage the fears of outsiders.

In the past, the growing subculture of "gamers" often reacted defensively to any kind of scrutiny, usually because those doing the scrutinizing were political opportunists. Now that gaming is an almost universal pastime, it deserves to be treated with the full rigor of scientific inquiry.

A Parent's Guide to Video Games is a useful little book for anyone whose children play games, and who wants to feel assured that there's no harm being done.

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