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College of Human Ecology

Playing video games: The difference between development and disaster

Monday, February 16, 2015

Recent studies have shown that video gaming has surpassed watching television as teens' favorite activity to defeat boredom, but this trade-off could have harmful consequences.

There is a national concern about the addiction to video games, especially among the young adults, said Elaine Johannes, associate professor in family studies and human services in the College of Human Ecology and Extension youth development specialist. She pointed to data collected in youth risk behavior surveillance surveys from 2007 to 2013 that shows an increase in video game use between both boys and girls, and the use is more than occasional.

In 2011, about 24 percent of teenagers used video games three or more hours a day, while in 2013, that statistic went up to 34 percent. She warns that parents should know when youth have free time and limit the free time they spend playing video games.

Elaine Johannes

Elaine Johannes

"There is a sweet spot," Johannes said. "Less than three hours per day, based on the game, may be developmentally positive. Between three and five hours, we begin to see some issues related to their social development and maybe even some physiological effects. But, with more than five hours a day there is real harm and potential danger."

The American Institute of Pediatrics recently published a study, completed in 2011, that tracked electronic gaming use and psychosocial adjustment - meaning how well adjusted that teen is to be with friends, to work within groups, to navigate through school well, or to get and keep a job.

Johannes said the study mentions some positive things that come with game use when it is less than three hours a day. The positives might include allowing the child to establish friendships, play challenging games with friends, and begin feeling comfortable around the technology or around games if they are not familiar with them.

However, she said once you get into the range of three to five hours a day, negative psychological impacts are more apparent. If the child is playing a game filled with a great deal of violent action, it can disrupt how the brain functions and the child's ability to concentrate.

The real danger of video game addiction comes from spending five or more of a teen's waking hours every day video gaming—not necessarily playing violent games but just gaming in general. Johannes said this could lead to lower satisfaction with life, lower satisfaction within relationships and what concerns her most, an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Parenting against addiction

Johannes served as project director of the recently-completed Kansas Adolescent Health Needs Assessment. The focus group interviews they conducted with nearly 400 Kansas teenagers revealed teens are not only playing video games at home, they're also playing them away from the home on their cell phones and tablets. This can make parenting against video game addiction difficult.

The professor received the 2014 Dean Barbara S. Stowe Faculty Development Award from the College of Human Ecology to assist with this project.

"What was surprising for us when we did our focus groups was that this gaming is going on in school," Johannes said. "The use of cell phones, not as a phone or communication device, but as a gaming instrument is happening during the school day."

She knows that new mobile technologies create obstacles for parents, but she stresses the importance of setting limits and controlling on the amount of time video gaming spent in the home.

"If we as parents don't attend to our child's behavior in our house, even if they are 14 or 17 years old, we put them at risk," Johannes said, "because now they are not only able to play video games at home when we aren't attentive, but they can also sneak it in during the day at school."

She said parents can help prevent addiction in three steps: research video games, reflect on their own personal behavior and then have a conversation for a positive outcome, not a punitive one.

Step 1: Do some research

"Video gaming is not going to go away," Johannes said. "The internet and technology are here to stay. We need to move within video gaming to understand it more. We need to be informed of it, not just try to avoid it or get overwhelmed."

Johannes said that in the focus groups, Kansas teens bluntly told researchers their parents aren't informed, and many of them are not aware of the ratings on the video games they play.

Every video game produced in the United States has a rating system based on difficulty of the game as well as violence, which is similar to those for television and movies. Parents should always check the ratings before purchasing a game or allowing their child to play a game, Johannes said.

"If I've never looked at the game my son is playing, how can I remark about what he's playing and understand what his world is like when he's in that game?" she questioned. "We as parents need to find out more about these games, including the educational part of the game if there is one and what's the real downside."

Johannes recommends the website, www.commonsensemedia.org, to parents wanting to investigate and read about the risks and benefits of a particular video game.

Step 2: Be a model

Once parents understand the games that children are playing, Johannes said it is time to parent by modeling.

"If we ourselves are staying up late playing video games, that might not be healthful," she said. "We are using our cell phones during dinner, and the children in our families and communities are watching us."

Johannes' assessment indicated children and teens are asking for parents to model positive behavior by showing them how to properly handle boredom and down time.

Step 3: Have a conversation

Finally, it is time to talk to children, Johannes said. This isn't a time to punish or chastise, but rather to ask questions about why they are playing the games so often.

If a child is playing games because of sheer boredom, which often is the case, find other activities to occupy their time. But, if the child is using video games to deal with a feeling of being depressed, professional help may be needed.

"Our suicide rates in this state are higher than the national average, and they aren't going down," Johannes said. "We do have issues with depression in our youth. I think it's important for that young person and parent to sit down, and if that young person is suffering from depression and is using video gaming as a way to self-medicate, then it is important to get help from a mental health professional."

Johannes said most of all from her needs assessment she learned most children are really just asking parents to be there for them.

"Instead of spending lots of money on things to occupy their time, kids want us to occupy their time," she said.

Prepared by Kansas State University Research and Extension communications
Additional image credit: Logitech game controller, buttons / Eric Holsinger / CC

This article was posted on Monday, February 16, 2015, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.