Video Game Stimulation and the Growing Brain

Gloria De Gaetano

by Gloria DeGaetano, Founder, the Parent Coaching Institute and author of Parenting Well in a Media Age, winner of the 2007 Best Products i-Parenting Award.

Video games have become the number one choice for screen entertainment, surpassing TV/DVD viewing and movie-going. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 99% of boys, ages 12–17 and 94% of girls in the same age range play video games. Eighty percent play five or more different genres, with racing, puzzles, sports, and action being the most common. (1)

What they play, of course, determines whether the game is harmful or helpful to their developing minds and spirits. Violent video games focus kids on murder and mayhem—very different from playing a puzzle game like Tetris that encourages spatial thinking. However, even a few hours a day of Tetris limits the time a child or teen will spend in other activities. Like too much television time, too much video game time limits other experiences absolutely necessary for normal development.

When kids play action-packed, fast paced, or violent video games, in particular, they increasingly need more powerful images in order to respond emotionally to the game. This is called stimulus addiction. The term "stimulus addiction" describes the habit that is formed as kids seek out more and more stimulating games to hold their interest.

Often kids start out with simple non-violent video games and move into increasingly violent games because violent games are the most stimulating. The more violent the images of the video game, the increased arousal levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that excite and entice kids to keep playing. Video games today display more horrific violence, with sharp images and realistic graphics. Words, ideas, and images of brutality not ever imagined to be "entertainment" ten years ago currently fill up much of our kids' leisure time.

Although the fast pace and emotionally vivid images of manufactured horror are definitely habit-forming, even nonviolent games can become addictive, with their repetitious nature and reinforcement of success.

Gamer addiction is real and not easy for moms and dads to deal with. Recently two of my coaching clients expressed major concerns with video games:

A dad of a fourth grader overheard his nine-year old in conversation with a friend:

"I'll finish her off by ripping out her heart."
"No, cut off her head instead."
"But I want to rip her heart out."
"I want to see her head fly off."
"Oh, all right, let's see her head roll. There! Look at all that blood. Cool."

They were excitedly playing a video game they had just downloaded. This father felt lucky to overhear his son, disturbing as it was. He was able to steer the boys to non-violent games, more appropriate for their age and more in alignment with the family's values.

A mom of a fifteen year-old felt hopeless about what to do about her daughter staying up until two in the morning playing video games and not being prepared for school the next day. By coaching this mom to take the appropriate steps her daughter got back on track—with better grades and a much better attitude. It was a process that took a lot of will power on this mom's part. She stayed with it, despite difficulties, learning through the PCI Coaching Model to reinforce positive behaviors and open up more appropriate actitivies for her daughter.

Gaming, in the lives of too many high school and college students, takes precedent over academics, sports, hobbies, art, dance, and other forms of self-expression. Tournemillie noted that a survey of 1500 teenagers indicated 25% were compulsive video gamers. Fifty per cent of those surveyed used the word "addiction" to describe a friend's gaming behaviors. (2) Because excitement becomes the reward for playing and because the games are set up to reinforce behavior intermittently, they are extremely habit-forming, and even potentially addicting.

It's easy to get lost in the fantasy world of video game play. Now with hand-held video games children as young as four years old are playing tehm--despite experts warning that this could be a very detrimental habit.

Dr. Don Schifrin, a pediatrician with a Seattle area practice and the American Academy of Pediatrics representative on the National Television Violence Study describes video game play as "a definite drug response." He goes on to explain, "When youngsters get into video games the object is excitement. The child, after playing for a while, builds a tolerance for that level of excitement. Now the child mimics drug-seeking behavior...initially there's experimentation, behavior to seek the drug for increasing levels of excitement, and then there is habituation, when more and more of the drug is actually necessary for these feelings of excitement. There is no need to have a video game system in the house, especially for young children. There is no middle ground for me on this. I view it as a black-and-white issue like helmets for bike safety. If parents want, rent a video game for a day and then return it. Everyone goes to Disneyland for a day. No one goes there daily." (3)

It's sobering to realize that such a strong stand against video game play by a respected doctor is not more well known to the general public. With the video game industry dominating the entertainment of children and youth, parental access to accurate information isn't likely. But it is likely that video game play will "hook" kids into a conditioned stimulus-response.

Here are extremely important activities parents can do to ensure healthy brain growth at any age, decreasing the likelihood of gamer addiction in the process.

Six Important Ways Parents Can Protect Children and Teens from Stimulus Addiction

  1. Keep kids curious.
    Game playing often stems from boredom. Kids who don't know what to do end up in front of a video game console or a computer. Yet, if there were other things to do, he or she may easily choose an alternative. Keep a list handy of age-appropriate activities, including lots of books from the local library. By enticing kids to turn to other activities when bored, chances are they won't get into a video game habit. They will know how to entertain themselves without the need for hyped stimulation.
  2. Invite natural play.
    For children, and teens too, encourage a playful spirit and a generative imagination. Children will imitate what they see on TV and teens will repeat what they hear on their iPod, unless we bring out their unique innovative imagination. Without it, kids are caught in the Play Station world and have no way of getting out. (In my book, Parenting Well in a Media Age, (highlight and link to PW website) I devised a chart on the distinctions between imaginative (generative) play and imitative play, that can help parents keep focus on children's innate creativity.)
  3. Give kids some control.
    Responsible autonomy means that kids make decisions and feel a sense of control over regular daily decisions. Video games tap into kids' need for control. If they only feel in control when they are playing these games, then they will naturally want to play the games more often. Give kids decisions in which you can live with either choice. An example for a young child might be: "Do you want to wear the blue of yellow shirt today?" Both have long sleeves and will keep the child warm. An example for an older child or teen might be: "When is a good day for you to help me with dinner this week?" You acknowledge that the child's schedule is in his/her control—giving over this decision when you can be flexible about the outcome.
  4. Broaden kids' sources of excitement.
    In video game play, the excitement is the reward. The "high" of reaching another level, killing off enemies, or quickly pushing the right button at the right time engenders a rush that feeds on itself. Direct reinforcement multiplies the excitement and pleasure. If video game playing is the only source of a child's or a teen's excitement—then other activities will go by the wayside. Gamer addiction happens because there are few opportunities in which the young person feels that level of excitement brought on by a video game. When children and tees are excited about a pursuit such as sports or art, music or academics, community service or church then they have other avenues in which to feel excitement about the outcome. One of the major jobs of parenting in a media age is for moms and dads to broaden opportunities for kids to use their skills and talents. The excitement of living and creating must become the reward.
  5. Teach children how to go inside themselves.
    When kids know how to meander in their internal landscapes, they are more self-directed. They can entertain themselves more easily. Give children and teens time to just sit and think—even if for only five or ten minutes at a stretch. Just a tiny practice starts the bud blooming. Kids will come to need this kind of "inside time." Before asking a question you can say, "Before you respond honey, I want you to take a minute to think about your answer." Consciously giving "think-time" provides a powerful model that it's important to take the time necessary to carefully consider an idea. Most video games are fast. They do not grow that part of the brain that is used in thoughtful reflection. This takes time. It's not a quick decision. By encouraging children and teens to do some slow pondering inside themselves, parents counter gamer addiction.
  6. Help children stay connected to the 3-D world.
    When PlayStation commands: "Play in Our World"—you better believe they know what they're doing. This is a well-thought out phrase to make children and teens believers that the video game world is the best world to play in. As illogical it may seem to most adults, youngsters do not have the thinking capacity to understand the long-term ramifications of this ad on attitude formation and the manufacturing of a need. To be "cool" a person better "play in their world."

Playing video games with our kids can go a long way to modeling proper use of this great tool for a fun time-out from the real-world. But like anything else, it's a question of balance. If kids aren't getting enough exercise outside, for instance, their lives are out of balance in favor of the screen-machine. If kids don't find their competence in various 3-D world activities, they might as well be tethered to the 2-D world. Parents who take a breather to kick or toss a ball, bike or hike, model for kids the value of life beyond a small screen. By nurturing children's exploration in the natural world, parents move kids out of the world of video games and give them the know-how and the spirit to create a better world—a world we will all enjoy playing in!