How Video Games Designed for Young Kids Lead to Gaming Addiction

Seven reasons to think twice before introducing your child to video games.
Shutterstock 785289431
Shutterstock photo

Video games have such a sense of nostalgia for many parents today. We think of our hours spent playing Pac-Man, Tetris and Super Mario Brothers when we were kids. And we want to share moments like these with our own kids. So, a little Mario Kart is innocent enough, right? I mean what can be so wrong with a game where you throw banana peels at your opponents? Or, as this mother of three boys, ages 6 to 11, asks:

You might be thinking: “I understand that allowing a teenager to play his video game five hours a day is not balanced. I also understand that mature graphic content is unsettling and needs to be avoided. But what could be so wrong with my 8-year-old playing innocent games a couple hours a day?”

Every gamer starts playing for “fun” at some point. And parents today are often excited about getting their child their first gaming system. It's an opportunity to play with your child and spend some downtime together. Plus, games give them a social outlet and, let’s face it, they can give us a bit of peace-and-quiet for a few minutes, or hours.

But kids get bigger and so do their games. Early gaming “hobbies” will grow. And even the most diligent parents can’t “manage” the deeply-rooted habit that started innocently in the early years. The kitchen timer no longer works and you have a new job: The Game Cop.

It’s fun and cute when they are little, but in the blink of an eye your 15-year old is playing Grand Theft Auto instead of doing his homework. Then you realize that his childhood “hobby” is not so cute anymore.

So, before you introduce your child to a new video game “hobby,” consider this:

1. Modern games are very addictive and because of the nature of a developing brain, addictions formed early in life are much harder to break. Games trigger an overproduction of dopamine in the brain. It is no accident that your child can’t easily pull away from the algorithms created by the neuroscientists who are hired by the game companies for just that reason.

2. Video games are entertainment, but not free play. Your child is not experiencing the type of play needed for optimal development on his game. Free play allows him to use and build his own imagination, make his own rules, interact with peers face-to-face and solve problems in a non-stressful environment. When he is on a game, he is following the imagination of the game designer, not his own. And sometimes that imagination he’s following is telling him to harm the friends he’s playing with to ensure his own survival. If this isn’t what you would teach your child in real life, then don’t encourage him to experience it through entertainment either.

3. Games feed his desire for low-effort, high-reward activities. He is not learning “code” on his game, nor is he learning how to practice deep thinking skills that he can use later in life. It is easy for parents to think that their little gamer is getting smarter playing “educational games,” but he is just getting better at his game and his dependence on the game for easy entertainment.

4. Game habits easily lead to negative emotional patterns. Not keeping track of time played, lying to parents, thinking about the game even when not playing, and being moody and depressed if deprived of game time are all normal for gamers.

5. Simple games are a gateway to more mature games that will desensitize him to violence and adult content. Over time, the brain will crave more excitement, more novelty and more graphic content. That is how a brain works.

6. Games encourage impulsivity and make it extremely difficult to build self-control and self-discipline. Both are essential skills for the adult world, and kids need to strengthen them before they get to their teen years, but gaming undermines that development.

7. Gaming causes separation from family and friends. Even a few afternoons a week spent on a video game instead of time with family can lead to isolation in the world of a child. And, while some games allow them to talk with “friends” (or strangers … do we really know who is on the other side of that headset?) while playing, they are not doing so in constructive ways that improve their emotional intelligence and empathy for others.

Video games are not neutral, and they are not the same games we grew up with. Even simple games are designed to be difficult to put down. When started at an early age, they have the power to forever change your child’s interests and hobbies, relationships, potential, and even personality.

While tossing a few banana peels and chasing each other around a race track seems innocent enough, we must begin with the end in mind and be very attentive to how our young children are becoming attached to games. The fact is that one day your cute little gamer may wake up with a gaming addiction that you didn’t see coming. So be proactive today and make decisions based on what sort of adult you want your child to become.

If you need help reducing the screen conflicts in your home, please reach out to us, we can help. Visit us online for tips and solutions for resolving screen problems and reclaiming childhood. Sign up for our next Screen Solutions Workshop, Friday, Feb. 23.