Game on

Boys and video games go hand-in-hand (or controller-in-hand). And there's scientific evidence to back up the connection, says Yvonne Eve Walus.

The temptation is understandable: Stunning graphics, realistic sounds, having to use skills as well as strategy. Add the fact that in the gaming world you can bend the rules of physics and defy gravity. Mix in the cool settings and the better-than-life animation. All these aspects of video games will appeal to players of all ages and genders, but school-going boys seem particularly affected.

This phenomenon, observed by many parents, is now backed by science. Stanford University School of Medicine used imaging to show that playing video games activates the part of the brain that generates the feeling of being rewarded, and that it does so more in men than in women. "These gender differences may help explain why males are more likely to become ‘hooked' on video games than females," the researchers observed. What's more, the same study discovered that gaining territory in a computer game is more gratifying for men than for women, and that
men have neural wiring that makes them more prone to feel
rewarded by a territorial game. It's therefore not surprising that boys tend to gravitated towards video games.

Sadly, the computer games that are really popular with boys are often not only territory-type games, but also aggression-type games. Many behavioural experiments suggest that exposure to violent video games can mess up judgment and fuel anger. Indiana University School of Medicine studied brain imaging to conclude that not only can violent video games directly alter brain activity, but they can do so in as little as one week. Boys and men who played violent video games for a week exhibited less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe and in the anterior cingulate cortex, areas responsible for emotional regulation. Furthermore, this pattern of reduced activity continued even when the subjects discontinued playing the games. "These results are very preliminary but very important," says the lead scientist. "There are several studies that suggest violent video games can lead to more aggressive behaviour but these data are the first to show that the violent game play is changing something in the brain that may underlie those behavioural changes."

A survey of 1,178 American children and teenagers discovered that roughly one in 10 video game players show signs of addictive behaviour. But is it as simple as the reward centres in the male brains? It may be that some personality types are more susceptible to addiction. Scientists at Iowa State University discovered a correlation between video game addiction and depression, although whether it's that games make people depressed or depressed people turn to games, is difficult to determine.

According to PsychGuide.com, there are two types of video game addictions. Single-player games usually have a clear mission, such as shooting down aeroplanes or getting to the top of the pyramid. The addiction is related to completing that mission, or beating a high score, or qualifying for the next level. The other type of video game addiction has to do with multiplayer games, where the player creates and temporarily becomes an online character. The attraction: there is an escape from reality, belonging to an online community, and being accepted by other players. Some gamers find that being part of this community can be helpful to them and could also help them to improve their gaming skills, so they can get a mmr boost, thus teaching them how hard work and dedication can help to prove their skills. This is a valuable skill that can be translated into parts of their life. However, while these are positive traits, some argue that there is a downside.

Emotional signs of video game addiction may include talking about a game obsessively, treating the gaming world like reality, being upset when screen time is up, lying about the amount of time spent playing, and giving up friend-time in order to play online. Physical signs may involve tiredness, sleep disorders, headaches, or carpal tunnel syndrome caused by the overuse of
a controller or computer mouse.

Does being addicted to video games in childhood increase the addiction part in their brain, making these children more predisposed to other addictions when they are older? To date, there's not enough data to test this theory.

One thing is clear, though. The opportunity cost of playing video games is high: Time spent in front of the computer is time without fresh air, without sunlight, and without physical activity. When they are chasing zombies in virtual reality, they are not kicking a ball with their friends, or building Lego castles, or reading books.

So what's the bottom line? The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children get a maximum of two hours of electronics a day. Ideally, screen time should not take up all their free time. It's a good idea for parents to be aware of what types of games their kids play and note any new behaviours that may emerge. As with everything, common sense and moderation are the way to go.

Tips for parents

what about gaming during the holidays?

When kids are at home during the summer holidays, being glued to the screen can become a problem. Here are some tips to help you cope if your children want to game all day, every day.

  • Instil rules around gaming early on so your children grow up accepting that there are rules and restrictions on what they can play, when, and how long – and so they know you're in charge.
  • Keep devices and consoles out of the bedrooms and in an area where you can monitor them, such as the lounge. Along with that, make it a rule that your children have to play their games out in the open where you can see and hear what they're doing
    – again, not in the bedroom.
  • Make sure the games they're playing are ones you're happy with, too. When buying games, go together to choose them so you each have the opportunity to explain why you do or do not think this game is a good idea.
  • Get your kids to earn their screen time by doing, say, an hour of exercise outside first, then they are allowed an hour of gaming.
  • Choose specific days where your kids are allowed to play, rather than permitting gaming every day.
  • Limit the time they are permitted to play, and stick to it. Be aware that "Just five more minutes!" will inevitably stretch out to 15 minutes or half an hour if you're busy and not paying attention.
  • If you're hosting play dates, ask other parents not to let their children bring devices along, and explain to your children that when their friends come over to play, you expect them to start with games outside or with active play. Give them balls to kick around, an obstacle course to do, or take them to the park to run around.
  • Know that most other parents feel the same way you do! Knowing that you have rules around gaming will help other parents to set boundaries around gaming with their own kids.
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