Media World: Should parents wage war on video games?

When I grew up in the '70s and '80s, my parents needed a crowbar to pry me away from the TV set. But these days, parents are increasingly waging a similar battle against video gaming systems, and losing.

More than 80% of U.S. kids between 2 and 17 regularly play video games, according to market research firm NPD Group. NPD estimates that 55.7 million children under 18 are "current gamers," 9.7 million of them under 5. And kids between 12 and 14 play video games for 10.6 hours a week.
More than half of U.S. homes have video game consoles, according to industry statistics, and video games top the holiday gift lists of many parents.

'Not Good or Bad'

Experts urge parents to use common sense. "Video games are a medium," says Dr. Cheryl Olsen, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital's Department of Psychiatry in Boston. "The medium is not good or bad. It's all about the content and how it's used."

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises limiting children to no more than two hours of screen time per day in front of any type of computer or video screen -- and says parents ignore that advice. Many parents either do not know about the guidelines -- designed to fight the childhood-obesity epidemic -- or ignore them, picking other battles with their children, says Dr. Victor Strasburger at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

"Parents feel powerless to control their kids' media," he says. And game-playing statistics, he says, are "truly scary."

Family-Friendly

That, of course, is not how the video-game industry sees it. The Entertainment Software Association argues that video games are not solely about shooting people. Most parents are present when their children play games, the ESA says: Mario Kart for Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii, and the Wii Fit, outsold Grand Theft Auto IV last year. A recent ESA poll found that 42% of U.S. adults plan to give, or hope to receive, a computer or video game this holiday season.

Nintendo captured first place in the video-console market by offering family-friendly games geared toward casual players. The Japanese company's position is now under assault from rivals including Sony Corp. (SNE) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), both of which have cut prices on their gaming systems.

Video games have their benefits. University of Florida researchers found last year that video games can improve students' math skills and comprehension, and raise scores on district-wide tests. (To be clear: the students in this 18-week study played educational games, not World of Warcraft.) And plenty of video games, such as ItzaZoo -- where kids' drawings are animated in a pretend zoo -- fire up kids' imaginations, says Jinny Gudmundsen, video games editor of non-profit group Common Sense Media. More educational titles are coming on the market, she says, though she did not specify.

Lives Out of Balance

More than 63% of parents believe games are a positive part of their children's lives, according to the ESA. But as today's kids increasingly spend their leisure time in the digital world, experts worry about longterm ramifications.

"For the typical child or teen, video games are a focus for social activity," says Olsen at Massachusetts General. "Playing alone almost all the time is not normal. I worry about video-game use when a child's life is out of balance: If the kid loses interest in other activities, isolates himself, and doesn't get enough exercise or sleep. This may be a sign of depression. My research suggests that some kids -- and adults -- use video games to manage their feelings."

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