the pros and cons of gaming in the digital world

To keep our children safe in the virtual playgrounds where they now play, we need to know as much as we can about the online activities they’re engaged in
By Anél Lewis

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My son, aged six, is obsessed with Minecraft. When he’s not playing the game, he’s talking about zombies and “mods” he wants to work/explore. We were naturally concerned about his over-enthusiasm for this online game that involved portals and pickaxes. So, we decided to find out more. I downloaded a few cheat sheets and ventured into the modular world that held my son transfixed. While I am not a fan of the exploding creepers, I am impressed by the game’s three-dimensionality. My son has even managed to create a model of the Titanic; unwittingly applying principles of geometry and dimension to complete the task. So, we’ve decided that if his activity is closely monitored within the parameters we set out, Minecraft does have features that can positively engage his creativity and spatial awareness.
 
Getting the balance right
As with any pursuit, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. We should always monitor our children’s screen time, and at the same time, apply limits and content restrictions to online gaming. According to the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), children younger than six should have no more than one hour of screen time a day. Older children should have restricted and closely-monitored screen access. Online games should be just one aspect of a child’s downtime; not the only source of entertainment. The World Health Organisation this year classified “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition, because of the risks associated with excessive digital gaming activities.
 
Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, notes that excessive levels of online play “may crowd out opportunities for face-to-face social and imaginative play” and encourage aggression and a desensitisation to risky behaviour. These could contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. Dr Merryn Young, a Cape Town-based psychiatrist, says there’s a risk that the time spent gaming could displace real-life social activity. Studies have also shown that gaming can lead to changes in cognitive brain areas, adds Young. In the developing adolescent brain, changes in the neural reward system associated with feeling pleasure and motivation can make children more vulnerable to the negative impacts of gaming, such as addiction and mood swings. “The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality develops with age and it is particularly important for parents to ensure that the content of games is developmentally-appropriate,” she adds.
 
There are some games that could be more problematic than others, notes Young. Children engaged in multiplayer games tend to play for longer than they should as they don’t want to disappoint their teams. Reward patterns in games also play a role. “As you move up in levels, the rewards become more random and sporadic and this encourages more persistent playing because your brain has been trained to keep on with the behaviour until you can get the next reward.”
 
A foundation for the future
Bec Oakley, writing on “minemum”, a blog for parents wanting to know more about Minecraft, highlights some of the positive aspects of online gaming. She says many of the games teach concepts such as logic, problem-solving and goal-setting, science, economics and literacy. Online games also introduce children to the basics of coding, which has been identified as one of the most important career options of the future. Children have to use memory and imagination to progress, and they are encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes, says Oakley.
 
Young agrees, saying that with responsible use, online gaming can be a “healthy recreational activity that provides an avenue for relaxation and a space for children to develop a sense of autonomy and competence”. Furthermore, she says research has shown improvements in several types of attention with online gaming, as well as enhanced visuospatial and motor skills. “Some studies have even explored positive aspects of gaming in improving memory in older adults,” Young adds.
 
Online predators
But, as with any playground – virtual or real – a child is at risk if there are multiple players and adults involved. Online gaming allows for interactive play with anyone in the world, in real time. Unfortunately, the anonymity of this virtual platform also creates opportunities for online predators wanting to groom children. Some games also allow players to generate their own content, which may be inappropriate or offensive. A mother in the UK received a nasty shock recently when she spotted a character in her seven-year-old daughter’s Roblox game simulating a violent sexual attack. The game’s developers apologised for the hack and took immediate steps to protect the platform. But, the breach is a stark reminder that parents need to be savvy about the how their children play online games.
 
How can parents level the virtual playing field?
  • Just as you would not leave your children with strangers, do not allow them to explore a virtual world without supervision and an understanding of the dangers they could encounter. Find out about the game your child is playing. Know the game’s age rating but don’t assume that this means the content is appropriate for your child.
  • Tighten privacy settings and turn off chat functions. Most online platforms have parental controls so that you can monitor the content.
  • Restrict gaming to single-player mode, or opt for multiplayer LAN (local area network is a group of devices that share a common wireless link to a server) games.
  • Help your child to self-regulate by explaining the dangers of grooming and what to do if they encounter inappropriate content. Enforce the rule that they may never share personal information or images online. Dr Young says it’s helpful to chat to children about their experiences and reasons for playing – be it to socialise, explore a fantasy world or to escape reality – to keep the lines of communication open.
  • The AAP recommends setting up a family media plan, based on the needs of your child and the family, that stipulates how much screen time is allowed and what games may be played. Include set times when screen time is forbidden and locations in the house, such as the bedroom, were devices may not be used. If possible, limit gaming activity to a communal living space where you can keep an eye on them.
  • Be firm about screen time limits, even if this means putting a timer next to the computer or installing third party software that automatically shuts down the game at set times.
  • Maintain a healthy balance of activities that include old-fashioned board games and outdoor activities.
 
Red flags
Dr Young identifies the following red flags of problematic gaming:
  • increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that it takes precedence over other interests and daily activities
  • continuing or escalating gaming despite negative consequences
  • deterioration of relationships with family members and isolation from others
  • less motivation to engage in offline activities, including academic pursuits and physical activity
  • preoccupation with thoughts about the previous or next online session
  • irritability when unable to play
  • lying about time spent playing or online purchases made
  • physical effects such as fatigue, headaches, poor personal hygiene or, in extreme cases, carpal tunnel syndrome.
Popular online games and their age ratings:
  • Minecraft – from the age of 7 or 13 depending on the version of the game
  • Fortnite – from age 12
  • Roblox – from age 10
  • Pixel Gun – from age 12
  • Zoo Tycoon – all ages
  • Lego Dimension – from age 10
 
Useful websites for parents
commonsensemedia.org/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-minecraft
saferinternetsouthafrica.co.za/online-games/
 
What’s the fuss about Fortnite?
Type “Fortnite” into any parenting group on Facebook and you will find a deluge of comments from parents concerned about the online game’s apparent hold over their children. The shooting game is described as a cross between Minecraft and Hunger Games and Fortnite Battle Royale is the free version that reportedly has more than 40 million players worldwide. Competitors are dropped on an island where they have to build structures and do battle with each other using firearms and other weapons to be the last player standing. The object of the game is ostensibly to kill, so that one player emerges victorious. But it uses high-quality, cartoon-like graphics that make the game appealing to younger viewers. It is also one of the more social options out there, as it works best on a multiplayer platform and there is chat functionality. Players can team up with friends, or connect with others around the world.
 
Dr Kristy Goodwin, an Australian children’s technology and development expert, says Fortnite can be played on a range of devices and at any time. The game is addictive because of the compulsive loops built into the play. It’s the adrenalin rush to be had from almost winning, that “keeps (players) enthralled and wanting more and more”, she explains. A nine-year-old girl in the UK even refused to take toilet breaks while playing. But Goodwin says that, as with any online game, there are pros and cons, and parents are advised to apply appropriate controls and time restrictions.

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