NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grand Theft Childhood: Do Video Games Present Health Risks for Children?

Day two of the NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction kicked-off with the much-anticipated plenary session, Grand Theft Childhood: What Are the Health Risks of Video Gaming? The session’s featured speaker was Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., co-director of The Harvard Center for Mental Health and Media, whose groundbreaking research on the health effects of video and computer games on children is featured in a new book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do.

Kutner explained that, although pundits and politicians often blame violent video games for increased aggression in children, it is very difficult to measure such a relationship. In fact, Kutner argued, regular video and computer game play can impact children in both positive and negative ways. In his evaluation of 1,300 middle-school gamers and their parents, Kutner identified some unexpected trends that can inform parents’ decisions about what games to allow in their homes.

Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of children play video or computers games; very few do not. Boys typically play games more frequently (often several times a week), and they are more likely to play violent (Mature, i.e., M-rated) games. Perhaps alarmingly, 20 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls report playing with strangers over the Internet regularly. Fun, excitement and competition were among the most prominent reasons cited for playing video and computer games. Children also consider gaming a very social activity, and some children use games to regulate their emotions.

The data from Kutner’s study identified, for the first time ever, a tentative relationship between violent video games and behavioral problems. Children who play M-rated games are more likely to get into fights, start trouble at school, damage property and get poor grades. Kutner noted, however, that violent crime among children is down nationwide, and he argues that the correlation between violent games and misbehavior may be indirect. He added that, “other factors are likely at play.”

Conversely, Kutner listed several benefits for children who play video and computer games. Gaming appears to improve selective attention span, help children cope with stress and inspire new interests. Interestingly, Kutner noted that children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (commonly referred to as ADD) can play video games for hours without losing interest.

After his presentation, Kutner answered audience questions, discussing the effects of text messaging on children, the risks of gaming alone and the potential physical health problems as a result of gaming too frequently. Kutner closed the session by discussing what he called a “tradition of moral outrage” about new media in the U.S. He said that, years ago, people worried about the potentially negative social consequences of comic books, movies and even paperback novels. Kutner said, “I worry about worrying too much,” and added that he believes that video and computer games, too, will eventually prove to be less risky than initially feared.


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