It seems like every time you turn around, the "latest and greatest" videogame console is coming at you.
It's not the consoles I caution parents against. It's the videogames that go with them.
With videogames, just as with television, studies show too much violent material increases the propensity for violence in children.
Games come with ratings to guide you on what's appropriate for your child, but the ratings are provided by the same industry that makes the games. It's basically self-policed, and not very objective. There's some conflict of interest.
Some experts believe the rating system is an advertising gimmick. Just as an R-rated movie might be alluring and tempting to kids, to where they might try to sneak in and see it, a videogame with a Mature rating seems edgy and mysterious to gamers.
The ratings are a start, but the best thing parents can do is take responsibility for the content they are introducing their children to.
Only about 10 percent of parents screen the games their kids play. Parents tend to be passive when it comes to this, because they don't realize the violence their kids are being exposed to.
Michael Rich MD, MPH, FAAP is a Harvard medical doctor often quoted in studies relating to videogames. His basic stance is that if there was poison in the water, or if the food supply was tainted, people would be up in arms in a second if it was hurting our kids.
But studies show there is a higher likelihood of videogame-playing leading to violence than there is smoking leading to cancer. He's asking, "why are parents so concerned about cigarettes when they are not concerned about what's going into their kids' minds?"
Dr. Rich continues, “The Center on Media and Child Health has catalogued 956 scientific articles that provide nearly unanimous evidence that exposure to media violence contributes to elevated fear and anxiety, sleep disturbances, desensitization to human suffering, and increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviors.” (Pediatrics Volume 119, Number 6, June 2007)
Avoid games that have a shooter or killing-type mentality; the games where you are the first-person shooter looking through the eyehole of a gun. The Columbine school killers were known to play these types of videogames for hours on end.
So is there anything good about videogames?
Gaming introduces children to computer technology, practice following directions, problem solving and logic, fine motor skills, provides occasions for parents and children to play together; and they're entertaining and fun, which is the main reason kids like it.
I recommend parents look for games that encourage group play, or involve puzzle-solving.
But no matter how safe and great the game, you should still limit the amount of time your children are sitting in front of the console.
A general rule of thumb, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, is one to two hours of quality television or media time a day. That would include computers and videogames.
But the actual amount of time kids are exposed to media is far greater than that. According to an Oct. 31, 2008 study in the Journal of Pediatrics, kids average 13 hours a week of playing videogames. When it comes to boys, it's closer to 18 hours a week; and that’s not including extra television and internet time.
My concern in hearing this is that kids are not doing more productive things, like reading or being physically active. And the interactive sports games that come with the Wii console are a start, but nothing beats the actual sport.
Also, kids can develop a skewed sense of reality if immersing themselves too frequently in a fantasy world, and they are putting themselves in a secluded, isolated, individualistic environment instead of interacting in group settings with friends.
We live in a world where our children are more computer-savvy than parents. Video-gaming is at their fingertips, it's their generation, even more so than our days of Atari and Intellivision.
But we are the adults, these are our children, and it is our job to ensure their safety.
I urge you to sit down with them and watch the videogames they're playing. Better yet, play it with them. If you don't like it, get rid of it.
And remember, don't let ratings fool you.
What are the ratings?
EC-Early Childhood: contains content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older
E-Everyone: Content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older; may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, or infrequent use of mild language
E10+: Content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older; may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes
T-Teen: Content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older; may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language
M-Mature: Content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older; may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language
A-Adults Only: Content that should only be played by persons 18 and older; may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.
*Source: Entertainment Software Rating Board, www.esrb.org