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Today's Family Magazine

Our kids' brains on video games

When it comes to video games, Donna Volpitta's 5th grade son is like many boys his age.  If kids aren't coming over to his house to play video games, he's going to their homes, or he's joining them online.

"Just like phones are not evil, video games are not evil.  Digital media is part of our kids' world and their social life," says Volpitta, Ed.D., who is also mom to three other children, ages 12, 14 and 16, and the author of "The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive-Not Reactive-Parenting."

"But, it's important to teach them mindful use and what video games do to your brain," she adds.

Why a healthy balance matters
Balancing your kids' electronics use with both organized activities and unstructured free time to dream and engage in creative pursuits, not only helps them become more conscientious users of technology, but also supports healthy brain development.

Too much screen time starves the cortex of the brain, which is in charge of long-term decision-making, and overfeeds the limbic system, which is the emotional fight-or-flight part of the brain.  Over time, this wires the brain for a short attention span, impulsive behavior, and an inability to pick up on social cues.

While video gaming can provide a positive way for peers to connect and enhance skills like hand-eye coordination and problem-solving, it doesn't help kids build resilience in the same way that solving a more complex problem can.

Suppose your child is trying to assemble a paper airplane that flies across the room instead of nosediving the minute it hits the air.  He looks up ideas online, tries different techniques, folds, refolds, experiments and tries again.  With a pile of frustrated attempts balled up around him, he finally experiences the sweet thrill of success as he tosses a plane into the air and watches it glide gracefully across the room.

When we pursue and achieve a hard-won goal, the brain is flooded with dopamine, the reward neurochemical, and serotonin, the self-confidence neurochemical.  Furthermore, our persistence and creative problem-solving builds self-esteem and resilience, a skill that will be invaluable as problems crop up throughout life.

"It's not that video games don't offer some level of persistence, but there's a very straight and narrow path towards that next goal," Volpitta says.

Unlike more complicated projects that delay gratification, video games offer users short bursts of reward chemicals that often leave the player wanting more.

"It's almost like having a chocolate chip as opposed to a Hershey bar," Volpitta explains.

The desire for more quick, pleasurable hits of dopamine and serotonin and unlimited access to gaming ultimately primes the brain for addiction.

Choose games wisely
Just as wholesome foods nourish your body, the content we feed the brain influences how we respond to the world.

"Continued and excessive exposure to violence puts the child into a reality where violence is an acceptable way of solving different problems," says pediatrician Raun Melmed, MD, author of the children's book "Timmy's Monster Diary: Screen Time Stress."

"Kids who are exposed to violence are more anxious, more fearful and very likely, more prone to violence."

Hilary Cash, Ph.D., agrees.  She is the chief clinical officer of reSTART Life, a Seattle-area internet and digital technology addiction residential treatment program for adolescents and young adults.  She notes research indicating that the levels of empathy among college students has dropped by nearly 40 percent in recent years.

"A lot of that is attributed to video games and the antisocial environment of the internet.  People are becoming inured to antisocial behavior and not developing the good emotional and social intelligence needed to promote empathy," Cash says.

Research games your child wants to play before you buy, and play or watch them together.  Seek pro-social games and those that encourage creative problem solving.  Check out for ratings and reviews.

Establish a media plan
Melmed suggests coming up with a media plan as a family, outlining rules that both parents and kids agree to follow.  For example, consider how much video game time is appropriate each day and when electronics will be powered down each evening to ensure a good night's sleep.

For her family, Volpitta doesn't allow screen time behind closed doors and limits video games to one hour a day once homework and chores are complete.

You might decide to have a digital free day once a week or ban electronic devices in the car or during meal time.

"Then you have to make sure meal time is an interesting time as well-a time for sharing and time for interacting," Melmed advises.

By creating realistic limits and understanding how video games impact the brain, as a parent you will feel more in control despite the rapidly changing digital landscape.  While your kids probably won't express appreciation for your vigilance, they will feel safer too.

"The brain needs to feel safe and it feels safe with those limits, with knowing that somebody is in control," Volpitta says.  "When we're afraid of setting those limits- when we're afraid of technology-it actually makes their brains feel unsafe."

Signs of trouble
Gaming becomes problematic if it is all your child seems to think or talk about, and if he exhibits agitation or anger when you try to set limits. 

"The similarities between kids who play too many video games for long periods of time and those who are addicted to anything else, from drugs to alcohol or cigarettes, is equivalent," Melmed.

Signs of gaming abuse and addiction include:
  • Digital media use for extended periods of time.
  • Problems with school work.
  • Trouble sleeping or sleepiness.
  • Physically overweight or underweight.
  • Infrequent face-to-face interactions with peers.
  • Depression, anxiety or anger.
To learn more, visit NetAddiction

Ideas for engaging screen-free meal times
  • Bring a current event to the table to discuss.
  • Share the day's highlights, low lights, gratitudes.
  • Ask questions like: "What was something kind you did for someone today?"; "Who made you laugh today?"; "What was something interesting you learned today?"
  • Play a trivia game.
  • Try to solve riddles.
Young children and screens
"The trouble with screens is that they mesmerize children, and they override their natural instincts to be social, to go explore the world, to be physically active." ~ Dr. Hilary Cash.

Because children develop critical language and social skills between zero and two years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents to steer clear of screen entertainment completely.

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