The Games Our Children Now Play

It’s a snowy morning 10 days before Christmas, and a half-dozen moms have cleared time from their hectic holiday schedules for story hour at Cincinnati’s Blue Manatee bookstore. Chatting with one another, they unzip toddlers from bulky jackets, pull off hats and mittens, and form a semicircle on the carpet. Preschoolers wander around the store purposefully, looking for familiar faces and finally settling into favorite chairs. Miss Gail, the reader, begins with a “Welcome Song.” The mothers all know the words by heart; the children are more tentative. The story today is about a penguin, and after introducing a fuzzy puppet to the crowd, Miss Gail opens a book and begins.

Over the last two decades, children’s bookstores have shown a steady decline — first after running afoul of chain stores in the 1990s, and more recently as they try to keep pace with online giants like Amazon. Lately, though, another competitor is threatening the livelihoods of businesses like the Blue Manatee, if not reading in general: entertainment media and its rising star, video games.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of more than 7.5 hours a day engaged in digital media — social networking, video games, websites, music, and television. Figuring in media multitasking — playing a video game, say, on an iPhone while watching television — they are actually absorbing some 10.5 hours of media content on a daily basis. As the foundation’s president and CEO points out, “The amount of time young people spend with media has grown to where it’s even more than a full-time work week.”

Why should parents dig to the bottom of the toy basket to pull out “The Poky Little Puppy” instead of handing over the PlayStation? According to Blue Manatee co-owner John Hutton and more than a handful of child psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians, the answer is simple: It may affect the kind of person your child grows up to be.

Hutton is passionate about the health effects of digital media on children and how it measures up against time spent reading. He is the father of three and a pediatrician whose area of research centers on children’s literacy. “Human language actually develops through a give-and-take process,” Hutton explains. When a mother says the word elephant to her son and points to a picture, he says, it not only develops the child’s vocabulary but nurtures the parent-child relationship. “You’re providing special one-on-one time,” he says. “Especially in today’s world, where we’re all so rushed, this is incredibly important.”

Dr. Pamela High, director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, explains it this way: “Reading is tied to the language centers in a child’s developing brain. We have very good research, beginning when children are only infants, showing that the words spoken directly to a child — the give and take of daily conversations that may seem frivolous — are actually the best predictor we have of their language development later in life. In addition, good language development in preschoolers is a very good predictor of later success in school.” Words spoken in the vicinity of a child — as, for example, on a television show — don’t have the same impact, she says. “Also — and this is very important — reading to children motivates them so that they want to learn to read when they get older. Kids who learn that books are wonderful and contain great stories, and who come to think of reading books together with their parents as a very special time, are more likely to work to overcome any struggles they may encounter learning to read.”

The benefits of reading at a young age go well beyond parent-child bonding and scholastic aptitude, psychiatrist Sarah Knox says. Knox specializes in working with children and adolescents. Learning to imagine, she says, goes hand in hand with learning to read. And developing the imagination helps children process complex emotions. “Think of reading,” she says, “as a way to develop a child’s imagination muscles. In reading a book — and here, I mean fiction — a child can identify with all kinds of different characters. She can imagine herself as a fairy princess, but also as an evil stepmother or a wicked witch. A book provides a place in a child’s mind where he or she can play out a lot of feelings and ideas in a way that’s safe,” she explains. A little boy can imagine himself as a swashbuckling pirate — without needing to run into the street, waving a sword. “When a child is able to have a rich array of these experiences in his head — to try on the shoes, so to speak, of all these different characters — it expands his capacity to tolerate and understand his own feelings, as well as the feelings of others. Another way to think of it is that through the experience of reading, a child develops a better sense of who he is, has a chance to empathize with others and is better able to negotiate his own emotional world. And those are real strengths in life.”

A book’s predictable structure — beginning, middle, and end — offers something else to children. “Beginning, middle, and end, if you think about it, has a lot to do with how all of us need to master relationships,” she continues. “Throughout our lives, we meet people, we make connections, we form attachments. And, just as in Charlotte’s Web, we need to deal with endings.”

In Hutton’s view, the finite structure of a book has another important benefit. “For a child to find out what happens at the end of a book — to get the payoff, so to speak — he needs to read it all the way through. That not only builds self-esteem — as in, ‘Hey, I just finished a “Harry Potter”!’ — but also strengthens the child’s ability to sit with a task, focus on that task, and get through it.”

Despite the negative press gaming often gets, the impact on children isn’t all bad. Video games develop motor skills, coordination, and the abilities to problem-solve and collaborate. As Sandra Calvert, professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, explains, video games appeal to some children in ways that books don’t. “Many video games are visually based, which makes them potentially very good at teaching things like spatial information, scientific concepts, or informal STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] learning,” she says. “Historically, we have prioritized words and language in this culture, but both are legitimate ways of thinking. Some people are dominant in terms of processing visually, so the newer technologies allow them access to information in a way that fits with the way their mind works.”

Hal Halpin is founder of Entertainment Consumers Association, the video-game industry’s retail trade association. “I think one of the things we’ve learned from all the research that’s been done on gaming, one of the things all the scientists agree on,” he says, “is that [when you’re playing a game], you’re activating new neural pathways and engaging the brain. You’ll never hear me say, ‘Games don’t affect you,’ because they do. It’s just a question of whether the game has the appropriate content for the right person of the right age. And parents are the ones best equipped to make that determination.”

Few in the field deny that violence in video games can be detrimental to a child’s development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls exposure to digital media violence a “significant risk” to the health of children and adolescents and has linked media violence to heightened aggression, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and unfounded fears of being harmed. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), while stating that video games may promote learning and problem-solving, cautions that children exposed to violence can become “numb to the horror of violence,” imitate the aggression they see, or use it to handle problems in their own lives.

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