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The Effect Of Video Games On Children: Something To Think About

by Sarah on November 17, 2012

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6819831 s 300x200 The Effect Of Video Games On Children: Something To Think About

My son’s teacher called us Friday morning with news we weren’t happy to hear.

Our son has been regularly late to class . . . papers disorganized . . .

And then just the day before our son O was playing with a rubber band and hit another child in the eye by accident.

No maliciousness, mind you. But carelessness. (Fortunately, the other child is okay.)

After I got off the phone and filled my husband in with the news it didn’t take us too long to conclude the same thing . . .

He had just started playing the video games again.

It’s been an ongoing issue with my son. A few years back we allowed him to download a few online games and play them. He repeatedly had a hard time getting off the game when we set a time limit. And then we started noticing a correlation with behavior problems.

So we kept him off the computer for weeks at a time, using the video game playing as a rare privilege and reward for good behavior. This seemed okay despite the fact that we had to really watch him like a hawk to make sure he got off on time. We didn’t really connect his overall distracted behavior and frequent bouts of irresponsible behavior with the video games.

However, the impact of video games on his overall behavior became crystal clear to us this summer when we allowed him to purchase an Ipod with his own money.

Within a few days, we made him return it.

After being on his Ipod for a half hour or more, he couldn’t focus on chores. He was late, distracted, disrespectful. His behavior was noticeably different. Then we found him sneaking it around, into his bedroom or the bathroom and playing with it even when he didn’t have permission to.

As soon as he returned the little electronic device his behavior changed. He was much more focused and respectful. His chores – while not always done right (which is normal for any 12 year old boy) –  were much more consistently done and done well.

Instead of fiddling with this device, he spent his time climbing trees, watching the chickens, and wandering in the woods playing his imaginary games. One day I surreptitiously watched him carefully act out a dramatic rendition of King Harold’s final fight and action-packed death from the Battle of Hastings that he had just read about. He built a crossbow and made a scuba device from some rocks, two gallon milk jugs and some old garden hose.

Based on what we witnessed this summer, video games were going back to being a rare treat.

But of course, those kinds of resolutions lose their mettle over the passage of time mixed in with a few redeeming sessions of good behavior.

During the week leading up to the phone call from his teacher, he had been allowed to play on the computer 3 different times for an hour each time.

So it didn’t surprise us too much when we heard from her. We looked at each other ruefully and firmly declared:

“No more video games.”

The Most Important Evidence Against Video Games For Your Children

I write this because I know you’re probably gearing up for the holidays and planning special gifts. And I’m sure many of you are planning an electronic gift or two for your kids.

I’m urging you to reconsider.

Before I get into some of the science behind what we witnessed at home, I ask you this:

Look carefully: What are you seeing in you, in your children and in the larger culture with our increasing use of electronic devices for entertainment?

The reason I’m starting with this question is because while science has racked up some compelling evidence, this is also a challenge to you as a parent to use your own observation skills and draw your own conclusions based on what you see.  Essentially . . . Look. Think.

We’ve got a lot of common sense and good instincts inside of us . . . and it may get buried sometimes with all the busy-ness of our lives . . . but it’s there. Use it.

I suspect you’ll discover that when you read about some of the research I’m about to share, you’ll think to yourself, “That makes sense. I noticed that. I felt that. I saw that. I can see this happening in me and my own children.”

Got it? So first, think for yourself and mull over what you’ve observed and wondered about.

Okay, now the officially researched evidence . . .

Video Games Can Be Addictive

First of all, video games can be addictive. Literally. Like a drug.

Researchers at Chung Ang University College of Medicine In Seoul, Korea recruited 21 healthy university students to look at this. They found that the brain activity among students who craved playing a video game was distinctively different from students who were not hooked on games. And most startling, the brain activity in the subjects craving games was similar to the brain activity of people who were addicted to drugs.

When these same researchers experimented by administering the drug Bupropion, the craving for internet video game playing decreased significantly. Bupropion is usually used as an antidepressant but it also is used to treat smoking and methamphetamine addiction.

So before we get any farther in discussing the pro’s and con’s of video game playing, it’s important to recognize that these toys we let our kids play with may be as dangerously addictive as cigarettes and even meth.

But are they mind-altering like some addictive drugs?

Perhaps not as dramatically. But the short answer is “yes”.

Video Games Make It Harder To Plan And Exercise Judgment

Some research has shown that video game playing can help increase brain activity in helpful ways. For example, one study showed that video game players were better at hand-eye coordination, making them better prepared to perform remote surgeries and other activities that require this kind of dexterity.

Okay, perhaps that’s good. But do you want your surgeon to be someone who cannot plan, think ahead, monitor their behavior or exercise self-restraint?

Because this is the other part of the video-game-playing package . . .

Research has shown that video game playing reduces activity and blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain. And this has tremendous consequences.

Your brain is kind of like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

When you don’t use parts of your brain, your body reduces blood flow to these areas. Neurons aren’t nourished and new neurons aren’t added on. The connections become weaker. Eventually this part of the brain shrinks due to lack of use.

The frontal lobe is the part of your brain you use to exercise emotional restraint and manage your behavior. This is why some research has shown clear connections between increased aggression and violent video game playing. In fact one study showed that there may even be a correlation between the highest number of kills in the video game and the most severely impulsive behavior.

But while violence maybe a concern, the problem is much bigger. The frontal lobe governs your ability to problem solve and plan ahead.

While violent games may be feeding violent fantasies, research shows that even using non-violent games like puzzles has the same effect when it comes to frontal lobe development. Essentially, the part of your brain that works to help you think ahead and work out tough problems won’t be as strong after video game playing.

One study looking at this compared the brain activity of hundreds of teenagers. Some of the participants read aloud and did math problems while another group played video games.

The video games only stimulated parts of the brain associated with vision and movement. The math problems, in contrast, used both the left and right hemispheres of the frontal lobe – the parts associated with learning, emotional control and memory.

Now interestingly enough, this study was designed to demonstrate the positive learning benefits of video games. The research team was hoping to use the study to gain more research dollars from educational video game producers.

Needless to say, the head researcher, Ryuta Kwashima from Tohoku University in Japan, was shocked by the results and felt compelled to share what they discovered at educational conferences. He urges parents to get their children outside to play instead of playing video games. He urges parents and educators to pay attention to what he sees as a very dangerous trend.

When you consider the fact that your frontal lobe’s main phase of development occurs while we’re young – under the age of 20, you can see how critical this is that our children spend as little time playing video games as possible.

And while video games specifically are demonstrably damaging, other electronic activities also seem to be causing harm.

  • Research conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, tracking empathy among college students over 30 years using the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index found that empathy has declined 48% since 1979. And they noted that the most notable declines occured after 2000 after social networks like Facebook and Myspace began to flourish.
  • Research out of Columbia University indicates that we may be losing our memory skills as a culture thanks to Google. Because it’s so easy to access trivia, we have stopped working as hard to retain information. It’s a natural tendency to not focus on retaining info we can easily access. But the researchers raise the question as to whether we’re losing this ability to an unhealthy level.

If you’re starting to get a little worried, good. This is a big problem we’re facing.

But don’t lose hope since there are ways to nurture a video game-damaged brain back to better health . . .

Exercise Does Just The Opposite Of Video Games

Now you’ve probably heard a lot about the link between video game playing and the rising rates of obesity among children. And certainly there’s a connection between kids sitting around more, only exercising their fingers, and gaining weight.

And just to be clear, plenty of research shows that those so-called “healthy” games, like the Wii don’t make a difference when it comes to weight. Anyone who has played soccer knows soccer on that game is like comparing tiddlywinks to basketball.

But the lack of exercise in favor of gaming isn’t just linked to bigger bellies.

Exercise’s benefits also goes right to the brain.

I’ve written about this elsewhere in describing how exercise helps children think. Essentially, research shows that exercise increases activity and growth in the frontal lobe of the brain. Researchers in Georgia have shown that regular exercise for overweight children helps improve behavior, math skills and reading ability in the short span of a month. No extra tutoring needed.

Give Your Children A Future By Not Giving Them This Gift

So I’m using strong language here: Give your children a viable future. Don’t give them another electronic device this holiday.

I’m very concerned about the future – we’re raising a generation that physiologically is losing their ability to reason and manage their behavior. Their brains are literally being rewired in a way that diminishes their ability to problem solve and exercise good judgment.

I won’t place all the blame on video games. We’re a culture that downplays discipline, responsibility and activity. Our emotional intelligence and physical health is declining rapidly thanks to a whole host of factors.

And even with my son’s recent transgression, we’ll still let him play video games on occasion – but very rarely!

Last week I urged you to focus your resources on nourishing your family and your health so you can get through the potentially tough times ahead.

Again, I’m urging you to do this – but specifically with regards to electronic gaming.

In the recommended resources section, I list a bunch of family fitness gift ideas you can consider – true investments in your family’s health and well being. All of them resources we’ve used and loved.

But today, I want to just leave you to mull over this.

Give your children a tremendous gift – a healthy brain capable of creativity, learning, planning and developing mature behavior that can help them through life’s challenges. Don’t give them an electronic gadget or video game.

What are your observations or thoughts on this? Please come over to Facebook and share.


Anonymous. Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to. University of Michigan news service. May 27, 2010.

Anonymous. Video gaming prepares brain for bigger tasks. Psychology and Sociology. September 24, 2010.

Bailey K et al. A negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control. Psychophysiology 2010 Jan 1:47(1):34-42.

Han DH et al. Bupropion sustained release treatment decreases craving for video games and cue-induced brain activity in patients with internet video game addiction. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010 Aug: 18(4): 297-304

Han DH et al. Changes in cue-induced, prefrontal cortex activity with video-game play. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2010 Dec: 13(6): 655-61.

Matsuda G et al. Sustained decrease in oxygenated hemoglobin during video games in he dorsal prefrontal cortex: a NIRS study of children. Neuroimage. 2006 Feb 1:29(3): 706-11.

McVeigh T. Computer games stunt teen brains. The Observer, 18 August 2001

Sparrow B et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science 5 August 2011 333:6043:776-778


my pic YHHB edited 1 The Effect Of Video Games On Children: Something To Think AboutAbout Sarah Clachar And Fit Family Together

Since expecting their first child, Sarah and her husband Cassius have made fitness a core part of their family life. From biking to hiking . . . from the heart of New York City to a farm in New England, they have found a way to stay active together. And through all this exercising as a family they discovered that family fitness builds not only strong bodies – but stronger families.

A professional health writer with a BA in biology, gardener and foodie Sarah brings a wealth of expertise in nutrition and health. A personal trainer and inveterate tinkerer, Cassius brings innovation to making family fitness work.

Ready to make family fitness part of your family life? Take the Fit Family Together 7 Day Family Fitness Challenge and put your own family fitness plan together.


  • Paul McGuire

    This is a very interesting article, and I don’t doubt your Son’s responses to these games is exactly what you say. However, to me it seems the research you cited ignores one very unique type of game, one that I enjoyed through my childhood (going back to middle school) and still on occasion enjoy when a new one is released that is worth playing. That type of game is the RPG.

    Of course, back when I started playing them, there was no voice acting so the story was all delivered in text form, through characters dialog. Now the plot resembles a movie more than a book. The games had complex systems of raising your characters and usually had many challenges along the way. Another nice feature is that the games have a set beginning and end so they aren’t going to be played continuously.

    The first of these games was Pokemon, at the time Pokemon Red and Blue, which I later enjoyed all the way into my college years with Pokemon Ruby. All Pokemon games are the same. You fight your way through a series of towns, each with its own gym master as the ultimate goal. Defeating all the gym masters lets you take on the elite 4 trainers as the final confrontation of the game, one which I still found quite challenging in my college years.

    I should note though that I did spend a significant amount of time in my childhood reading books when I wasn’t playing. Still I will admit that when I get a good new game I do feel the addictive nature of it when I stop playing for a few days. I tend to use that addictive nature as an indication that I am really enjoying the game and a new game I don’t get hooked on likely won’t be completed.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to advocate for restricted gaming time, although I do think the restrictions should be much more strict for young children than early teens or late teens. I know personally if I didn’t have games to get me through high school, I might not be here today. I faced some serious rejection by the major peer groups and my friends who helped me through were friends because they were the only ones who openly admitted to enjoying the same types of games.

  • Sarah Clachar

    Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience here. I have to say, I’m no game expert so I’m not familiar with the full spectrum of games. And I certainly expect that the range of games also reflects a range of physiological effects. I will note that one of the studies I discuss was done on “educational” games.

    However, you bring up a concern that I’ve covered in other posts and will probably return to again . . . I understand how tough it can be growing up and feel like an outsider. (I know!) I certainly understand how good it feels to find the comraderie of like-minded people – nothing wrong with that. But it seems our interest in electronic socializing and games stems from the fact that it makes it easy for us to do things that ordinarily are difficult. Some colleges are now offering socializing classes to their freshmen classes since so many kids don’t know how to socialize face to face.

    And even outside of socializing, I have observed in my own day-to-day how much more my creative mind is engaged when I’m doing physical work versus being on the computer. It challenges us in a very multidimensional way that electronic media can’t match.

    I haven’t found the research on this yet – it may not even be there. But I’m convinced that the complexity of our thinking is suffering the more we transfer entertainment, socializing and work to electronics that don’t challenge us in ways that are hard to quantify.

  • Dwan Reed

    Excellent article. You really gave me something to think about. Our son requested an ipod for Christmas. Don’t think I will get it now.

  • Sarah Clachar

    Dwan, so glad this was helpful. It’s not always easy to say “no” – but hey, that’s the job of being a parent. Good to hear from you.

  • dori

    my boys do gymnastics 9 hours a week, tap 4 or more hours a week (they are in a performing tap group), play the piano, do legos (complicated sets), make jewelry to sell, and read among other things and their school work. i don’t have a problem with them using video games although i am very careful with what kind of game i allow. no blatantly violent ones and frankly they don’t care about those. so please don’t generalize. besides videos are the way of the world, as it technology, the internet and it only gets more so not less. my kids know more about the computer than i will ever be able to grasp.

    just my two cents

  • dori

    just want to add that my identical twin boys just turned 12 and got straigh t as in school.

  • dori

    you may be right on the last paragraph. but what would you like to do? turn back time? electronics are a blessing and a curse but they aren’t going away and they will only get more fine tuned and fun.

    not saying that we don’t need socializing face to face, you just have to make sure your kids and you have “playdates!”

  • Sarah Clachar

    Dori, thanks for commenting. That’s great your children are so active and doing so well in school – a credit to you as a parent. In my household as well, we occasionally allow my son to play video games. But very rarely.

    Yes, it’s the direction we’re moving in – from socializing to commerce to entertainment. I use the internet and social media for my businesses all the time. Yes, they’re useful tools. But just because the momentum is in that direction doesn’t mean we should throw discretion out the window. There are consequences to this shift and I suspect problems that may be much deeper than we anticipate the more we build our lives around electronics. My goal here is to urge parents to not just accept this is the way – everyone’s doing it – but to help their children navigate it with firm guidelines and wariness about what it brings.

    I’m struck by how many family therapists I’ve heard from have welcomed this article – they see the effects of the problems these games and other electronic entertainment brings in larger numbers.

    And here’s the big question: What will we need in the future to take on the world’s challenges? Adept computer users or people who can exercise wisdom in making tough decisions and assessing potential consequences? I know we’ll need both to some degree. But what are we losing and in the end, which skills will be more critical?

  • Anita

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m an art teacher and this year the other teachers have also been commenting on how less creative the children are in general–so unable to solve problems themselves and think creatively for the most part. I blame a lot on too much tv and video games!

  • Sarah Clachar

    Anita, thank you for sharing this. You’re not the first art teacher I’ve heard from worrying about the lack of creativity she’s seeing. I suspect the link is there.

  • Mercyrainz

    Honestly, having raised 4 sons who are very much into video games, I must disagree. While I understand where you are coming from, I have not observed that gaming has the same effect on all children, or that electronics have the same effect on all people in general. Everyone is different and some people are more naturally susceptible to certain things than others are. I certainly agree that we all need to be cognizant of the potential that gaming and electronics could be a problem for some of us and for some of our children. Parents have got to be aware and monitor things and intervene if we can see that our child is being harmed. That is our
    job as parents. However, at the
    same time, please do not blanketly assume that your experience and observations apply to everyone else.

  • Sarah Clachar

    Mercyrainz, thank you for sharing your perspective. And certainly I agree we all have different biochemistries, etc. and react differently to things. Additional factors like how much activity kids have to balance video games off, strict parenting, setting limits to game playing, etc. also help. However, I want to emphasize that while I’ve observed this with my son, it’s not just my observations. In this post, I’ve included a few of the many studies on this topic. Teachers I talk to observe the same thing – overall our children have dropped dramatically in their ability to focus and self-regulate. We’re also in a culture that has relaxed our expectations about discipline and focus making it even harder for us to see the problem. Many of us adults have dropped the standards we hold ourselves to and have consequently lowered our expectations of our children. So I’m not mistakenly assuming my limited experience alone extends to everyone. I know for a fact this is a larger issue we face as a culture.

  • Mercyrainz

    Again, I do appreciate where you are coming from, but I, too, am a working professional who sees children and families on a daily basis. I have observed just as many children who function without problems despite the fact that electronic media, such as video games, are part of their lives. I believe that your concerns apply to some, but not all. This is based on my own personal and professional experience and observations. I do think that a definite cultural shift is occurring as technology continues to advance and impact our society in ways that may seem harmful to some, and yet may be viewed differently by others. Things just are not always as black and white and cut and dried as we would like them to be. I agree that parents need to be vigilant and be aware of how video games and other electronic media may be impacting their children. That is just plain common sense. I do not, however, think that everyone should automatically and blanketly assume that these things are inherently damaging or harmful. I think that balance and common sense must be employed when evaluating such things. I also think that a critique should be fair and balanced
    and as objective as possible. And to the art teacher, I know of many kids who are excelling artistically and creatively and electronic media has had a very positive impact rather than a negative one.

  • Sarah Clachar

    Thank you again for joining the discussion. I think you need to re-read the article before using words like “blanketed” or “automatically”. This is not a knee-jerk article and it doesn’t take an absolutist position since as I note we still let our son play video games on occasion.

    But it is a very real warning that wise people do well to heed and make strategic adjustments accordingly. Unfortunately, complacency and the way we adjust to fit the norm makes it hard for most of us to see the damage being done here. The data I’ve referred to is only a small part of the overwhelming data on video games and the problems they incur. I didn’t even touch on the links to violence and their role in recent mass killings in this country. After reviewing 40+ years of research, the American Psychological Association has come to similar conclusions of significant social problems being linked to video games – more so than any other media. The data’s there. The consequences are being felt everywhere. It’s worth paying attention to.

    And when it comes to being objective – yeah, I guess I’m not. On this blog, I never try to be objective. I’m a mom. My son’s behavior fluctuations are too frustrating to witness without doing something about it and looking into the mountains of data that have helped me understand a potential source of the problem. Amazing what’s happened for him once we dramatically reduced game playing. Dramatic. I’m wholeheartedly unabashedly passionate about sharing this info with other moms and dads who are facing the same problems.

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