Is it good for children to play video games? Does it affect their development? How does it impact their brain to spend hours in front of a screen killing monsters or playing Candy Crush? is it harmful to a child to fall asleep watching cartoons on a tablet?

In a blog by Peter Gray of Boston College, author of Freedom to Learn, we can read:

I know kids who spend vast amounts of time reading—just sitting and reading—without moving for 8 hours a day. There have always been kids like that, even when I was little. I never understood why they sat and read when they could come fishing with me. What a waste of time! Interestingly, I have never met a parent who limits a child’s reading time. Why is it better to determine TV time or play computer games or consoles than limit reading time? Why do we worry about kids who spend 4 hours in front of a computer doing what they like and not worry about the same child sitting at a desk for 6 or 7 hours, plus two hours of homework doing what others force on them? I suggest reconsidering whether the child learns more valuable knowledge, or enhances cognitive skills on the computer than in school, mainly because the laptop is chosen and school is forced.

Children come from series adapted to change; their brains are more plastic precisely to learn. They do not mind change; on the contrary, it stimulates them. Adults are less fond of change because it is not pleasant to modify our way of thinking when we have been doing it in one way for 40 years. When poetry and theater appeared, Plato criticized it in The Republic; the appearance of books in the Middle Ages was criticized because they corrupted minds. Later, television “stupefies” the brain, and now, more of the same, with computers, tablets, smartphones, and game consoles.

First, we must consider the child’s age-associated with their capacity for choice and responsibility and then assess the type of activity they perform with the device. Watching a Peppa Pig video is not the same as playing at killing monsters or interacting on social networks with stangers.

video games and children's brains

Up to the age of three

From the second year of life, children can interact somewhat with devices in basic games such as Which one is the lion? They are essentially passive spectators who do not interact with the device. In simple games, they do not last more than five minutes because they require sustained attention and proactivity that they cannot maintain for long. They get bored because they are not fully aware of the goals, achievements, levels, and rewards of the game, motivating at older ages; their interest does not go beyond colors and moving dolls.

Their relationship with electronic devices focuses on watching cartoons, singing games, or some absurd videos, such as a girl who opens 50 surprise eggs. From a psychological point of view, there is no difference between watching television. The proximity does not harm their eyes because if it bothers them, their eyes get tired or dry, they stop caring, something that older children do not do when they play actively.

In this regard, some research indicates that constant focusing at close visual ranges can stress and tire the eye and eventually lead to myopia. The study, however, finds no correlation between the use of these devices and myopia. The most crucial cause of intolerance in children is simply heredity. Children with nearsighted parents are more likely to develop myopia. 

The only precaution to be taken, apart from the volume, is the brightness and type of light emitted by the screen, i.e., if they are watched in the evening we must control the brightness since a high brightness and blue tones could delay their DLMO (dim light melatonin onset), the time of biological secretion of melatonin when the brain detects that there is no light and orders the pineal gland to secrete this hormone that induces the neurophysiological changes for the onset of sleep. The best thing to do is activate the blue shade option that blocks blue light or uses a similar application, or put a blue light filter. This advice is valid for all ages. As a general rule, exposure to bright light in the morning brings sleep earlier in the evening, and in the afternoon, it delays it.

Finally, the homeostatic component of sleep (the time spent awake) is too vital at this age for an electronic device to detract from rest; he will fall asleep no matter how interesting what he sees is. On the contrary, a tablet with the brightness and sound significantly dimmed can help him fall asleep on difficult days.

Between the ages of three and six

At this age, they continue to watch music, cartoons, and movies. They manage them repeatedly and do not follow the storyline even though they can repeat the dialogues by heart.

On the other hand, they begin to play simple games as they do not fully develop cognitive skills for advanced competitions. Some necessary mental faculties of analysis, planning, and execution are not mature in their brain. Apart from the fact that the literacy needed for many games is being consolidated. They can try, but their attention span does not exceed a few minutes. In simple games, such as Candy Crush, if they can stay longer, they get tired, especially if there are other alternative games, outdoors, or with siblings or friends.

The precautions we must take are the same as for children under three years of age regarding time, brightness, volume, and additional protection. They cannot go to sleep playing because play requires proactivity and stimulation, and we would be going against the sleep vector that requires the opposite.

Between six and nine years old

We can take the section assessments between three and six years, but increasing the tendency to video games, especially by children with sports games and, most importantly, the beginning of computer use.

At this age, the consolidation of reading and writing has taken place. Therefore, the computer and smartphone open a world of possibilities that must be monitored because accessing unsuitable or inappropriate content is easy. At this age, the child should see as usual that we interact with them and, of course, the possibility of accessing the history of use to detect access to unsuitable content.

On the other hand, it is evident that the computer is the most effective information tool today and will be in the future. Therefore, learning and interaction should not be limited if done correctly. Suppose a seven-year-old child hears the word brontosaurus and goes to his electronic device to Google it’s meaning. In that case, it is pretty positive, just as it was in our time when we consulted the encyclopedia.

Regarding video games, now they can be more attentive because now they learn strategies, and their cognitive skills allow them more complex interactions of planning and execution. We can give some recommendations about eyestrain and dry eyes. Use the 20-20-20 rule; every twenty minutes, look for 20 seconds at an object 20 feet away.

From the age of 9

We enter the golden age of video games, as Barbara Chamberlin, director of New Mexico State University, rightly explains:

“Games offer immediate feedback; you can see your progress, you can try something and get frustrated for a moment but, when you beat it, later on, you learn more and more, and it feeds back into your reward center… That’s why the game is so appealing to us.”

Video gaming is here to stay. More and more of them are highly entertaining, connecting with a more significant number of people. 65% of households have one or more gaming devices, not counting smartphones which are now as powerful as computers.

From this age, we can take the above advice on light, volume and above all take into account these aspects:

  • The best play for early brain development occurs outdoors, with other children, and with physical components. Whenever that option exists, we must promote it in the child. If it is not possible, video game or computer use is not harmful; it is just another alternative.
  • Play better with friends or family both face-to-face and online.
  • Do not play before bedtime because it stimulates and goes against the sleep vector.
  • Gaming should never reduce hours of sleep. Until the age of 12, it is not advisable to use video games after seven or eight in the evening.

CONCLUSIONS ON THE USE OF VIDEO GAMES BY AGE

From the point of view of the environment where we have evolved as a species, the best play occurs outdoors, moving and in groups of children of different ages. Play is the best way to learn dexterity and cognitive skills of all kinds, including social skills. The benefits are immense, for example, on myopia.

The use of electronic devices for entertainment is one more alternative. Rather than rejecting it, we should integrate electronic devices into our children’s lives, taking advantage of their benefits and trying to avoid their drawbacks. Video games improve cognitive abilities; several serious studies corroborate this, such as optimizing planning, resource management, and executive functions. Even several multinational companies look for their leaders among the best video game players.

Children especially like the freedom, self-direction, and competition they find in video games. They make their own decisions, strive to overcome challenges of their choosing, solve complex problems, and exhibit extraordinary skills. In gaming, age does not matter, but talent does. In this way, video games are one more form of actual play.

When they are young, you have to control the type of light, brightness, volume, that it does not reduce sleep hours, and that it is not the only means of entertainment; electronic devices are just one more. As they grow up, you should supervise the type of activity and, more importantly, the content they access, especially on social networks.

If a child seems obsessed with video games and unhappy when not playing, don’t conclude that games cause unhappiness. Because we wouldn’t do that if he read ten hours a day, blaming it on books, and psychologically it’s the same obsession. Instead, we need to find out what may be missing or malfunctioning in other aspects of your life and whether or not you can help solve that problem. Many obsessed with playing in virtual worlds are because the real world does not produce the same happiness in the child, and we need to find out why. It may be school, parents, friends, or simply a way to escape from everyday problems.

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