Kids, Teens, Video Games, and When Parents Should Worry

by | Jun 27, 2011 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness, Internet, Parenting, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Why diminishment of kid empathy should be our biggest concern about media and video games. Ratings, research, solutions, and how to gear up and parent the “Controller Generation”


“Can’t I just play one more hour?”

“But there’s nottttthhhhthinnnng else to do!”

“Chill out, Mom. The game is not that violent.”

There’s no doubt that video games are a part of the plugged-in generation’s lifestyle. But are you aware just how much of an impact video games are? Check out these stats:

REALITY CHECK: Did you know that 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 play computer, web, portable or console games? More than 90 percent of kids play video games 30 minutes a day though boys spend twice as much time playing than girls. In fact, video gaming is so widespread among American kids that studies show that nearly every teen plays games in some way, regardless of gender, age or economic status.

For some kids games are “everything.” That’s why there’s also a growing concern among parents about video games that range from: making kids more aggressive, developing sedentary lifestyles, squelching cognitive development or academic potential.

After all, it’s very easy for kids to fall into the habit of spending too much time in front of those controllers.

The truth is too much videogame playing isn’t healthy for anyone and can rob our children from experiencing the great outdoors, reading for pleasure, getting enough exercise, doing their homework, as well as learning to get along with others. But don’t rush to judgment too quickly. Over the last decade video game makers have come a long way and playing some of those games actually benefit our kids’ learning, motor dexterity and even help keep them in better shape. Studies also show playing with your child (depending on what you play, of course) can enhance the parent-kid relationship.

Here are solutions to help you wade through those tough choices and know whether playing that video game is actually aiding or hindering your child’s development.

Parenting Solutions for Kids, Teens and Video Games

Know Your Child

For my two cents, I don’t think it’s healthy for any kid to be play violent video games. But don’t get me wrong, playing one video game is not going to cause irrevocable damage. Just please know that some children are influenced by aggressive content. If kids continue playing violent games they will stress more and become more aggressive and less empathic. Research finds that video games may decrease our kids’ capacity to feel for others

Video Games May Decrease Kids’ Empathy

University of Toronto: A study with 150 fourth and fifth graders found that those spending the most time playing violent video games are also most likely to agree with statements such as: “People with guns or knives are cool,” and “Parents should tell their kids to fight if they have to.” Those same kids are also more likely to disagree with statements such as, “When I’m mean to someone I generally feel bad about it later,” or “I’m happy when my teacher says my friend did a good job.” Many child experts (myself included) are concerned that violent video game playing may desensitize your child to empathy-or that glorious capacity to feel for another.

Kids who are more sensitive, have an aggressive or hyper temperament, or are predisposed to aggression by witnessing or experiencing it are also more likely to be aggressive after playing certain video games.

A review by the University of Michigan of over 85 studies found that “video games increase aggressive thoughts and angry feelings, aggressive behaviors and decrease helping behavior.”

But you don’t need research to prove that to you. Just monitor your child’s behavior closer. If you notice he becomes more wound up or aggressive and you think it’s due to playing that game, the solution is simple: Take away those controllers and stay abreast of late-breaking research so you can make responsible parenting decisions as to what is best for your child. Be clear as to not only which games are off-limits but how long your kid is allowed to play.

Be Selective As to Video Content: Know the Ratings!

Set clear parameters as to which games you will allow your kids to watch. Ratings established by the Entertainment Software Rating Board are prominently labeled on the outside of each video game box. (By the way, game raters include child development experts, retired school principals, teachers, as well as parents).

Teach your kid those ratings so there are no questions or arguments.

Video Game Ratings

EC (Early Childhood-Ages 3+): No inappropriate or objectionable material

E (Everyone Ages 6+): May contain minimal violence, some comic mischief or crude language

T (Teen; Ages 13+) May contain violent content, mild or strong language and suggestive themes

M (Mature-Ages 17+) May include more intense violence or language; mature sexual themes

AO-(Adult Only-Ages 18+) May include graphic depiction of sex and violence

Watch the Whole Game

Many games appear mild at the lowest skill level but grow increasing violent as the player’s skill increases. So if the box with the rating is missing, watch what your child is playing all the way through to the end or ask your child to give you a demo. These games can appear deceiving.

One of the most popular-sellers, “Grand Theft Auto” begins as a fast-pace racing game, but as player moves up in the competition (and later into the game) points are earned for knocking a policeman off his motorcycle and running down a pedestrian. You can also hire a prostitute, have sex with her, then knock her out and get the money back. Yes, such games are rated for adults, but kids say they can gain access to them easily and many parents never watch beyond the first scenes not realizing how inappropriate content of following scenes. And a recent study found that nearly 80 percent of E rated violent games do contain some violence.

Make Time for Friends

UCLA studies find though certain video games can increase kids’ IQ, they do so at the expense of learning crucial social skills. So don’t let video game playing detract from being with friends. You may also want to put limits on game playing from friends come over or restrict video game playing all together. Don’t be surprised that once you set limits for video playing in your home that your kid decides to spend more time at his friend’s house. If the friend’s parents are allowing unlimited video playing, it may be time to speak with them and share your own policy. They just may decide to adopt a one-hour limit as well.

Teach Anger Management

A study of 1254 preteens found that a big reason they play video games is to manage their feelings, including anger and stress. In fact, kids who play violent games are more likely to play to release anger.

Make sure your child knows healthy ways to release anger such as exercise, eat healthier, journal upset feelings, talk to someone about their upset thoughts, do deep breathing exercises or meditation.

Then encourage your child to use those strategies to get their anger out appropriately. See also: Anger Management for Kids

The long and the short on video games is that there needs to be more research to determine the long-range impact on our children. Meanwhile, keep a closer eye on your child’s behavior. And remember, you do pay the electric bill and are the parent. It’s okay to say, “NO!”

When A Parent Should Worry About Video Games

Here are red flags that may signal that video games are a negative influence:

Peer replacement: Uses video games as a substitute for friends or being with kids

Addiction: Replaces other entertainment forms; if restricted from playing behavior flares up; goes through “video game withdrawals” (all your child wants to do). This is such a concern of the American Psychological Association that members are hotly-debating whether video game addiction should be labeled a mental health disorder.

Aggressive: Acts out, becomes more impulsive or aggressive after playing

Less caring: Displays less concern or empathy towards others

Grades wane: Homework battles increase, grades or test scores decrease

Sleepless: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (Beware: quick-fire screen images and aggressive content activates the brain and can keep kids awake)

Couch potato: Too sedentary a lifestyle, limiting exercise, gaining weight

Credit card: Your credit card shows unexplained charges. Online gaming networks charge to play; video games are easily purchased online using a parent’s credit card

….or ANY OTHER unhealthy behavior that you see increase in your child that could be correlated to those video games. Use your instinct. Pull the plug!

Dr. Michele Borba

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development. Refer to the chapters on depression, online safety and cyberbullying in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba


99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 play computer, web, portable or console games: Lenhart, J. Kahne, E. Middaugh, A. Rankin Macgill, C. Evans, J. Vitak, “Teens, Video Games, and Civis: Teens’ Gaming Experiences Are Diverse and Include Significant Social and Civil Engagement,” Washington, DC: Pew/Internet & American Life Project, Sept. 16, 2008.

90 percent of all kids play video games, on average for about 30 minutes a day: Michigan State University, Oct, 12, 2005; “Violent Video Games Lead to Brain Activity Characteristics of Aggression,” ScienceDaily, retrieved Feb. 5, 2008 from

Boys spend twice as much time playing video games than girls: B. Greenberg, “Children Spend More Time Playing Video Games Tan Watching TV, MSU Survey Shows,” Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Apr. 2, 2004 [].

Average child spends an hour a day playing video games or surfing the Internet: Nearly every teen plays games in some way: A. Lenhart, J. Kahne, E. Middaugh, A. Rankin Macgill, C. Evans, J. Vitak, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics: Teens’ Gaming Experiences Are Diverse and Include Significant Social and Civil Engagement,” Washington, DC: Pew/Internet & American Life Project, Sept. 16, 2008, p. 8.

University of Toronto study of 150 fourth and fifth graders published in Journal of Adolescence finds correlation between viewing violent movies and decrease in empathy: cited by J. Laidman, “Impact of Violent Video Games on Young Children Examined in New Study,” Toledo Blade, Feb. 14, 2004.

Swinburne University of Technology study of 120 kids aged 11 to 15 found those prone to worrying neurotic behavior and predisposed to aggression were likely to be more aggressive after playing violent video games, study published: The Sydney Morning Herald, “Most Kids ‘Unaffected’ By Violent Games,” Apr 1, 2007:”

University of Michigan review of 85 video-game studies by Brad Bushman and increase in angry feelings and aggressive thoughts: cited by J. Laidman, “Impact of Violent Video Games on Young Children Examined in New Study,” Toledo Blade, Feb. 14, 2004.

Video-game ratings established by the Entertainment Software Rating Board cited by “How the Entertained Are Warned,” USA TODAY, May 4, 1999, p. 6D.

Grand Theft Auto: J. Laidman, “Impact of Violent Video Games on Young Children Examined in New Study,” Toledo Blade, Feb. 14, 2004.

80 percent of E-Everyone videos contain some violence: P. Abrams, “Making Peae with Video Games,” Parents, Sept 2002, p 169-170.

Patricia Greenfield, psychology professor at UCLA finds nonverbal IQ scores increase playing problem solving games: J. Quittner, “Are Video Games Really So Bad?” Time, Vol. 153, No. 18., May 10, 1999.

Playing video games with your kids increases time kids spend with you in other activities: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Texas, Austin study of 1491 10-19 years old during the school year: JAMA and Archives Journals, July 4, 2007, “Study Examines Video Game Play Among Adolescents,” ScienceDaily. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2008, htt;//

Mayo Clinic, “Adding Activity To Video Games Fights Obesity, Study Shows,” Jan 10, 2007, ScienceDaily. Retrieved Feb 3, 2008, from

Study of 1254 preteens from two states conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital,: E. Beresin, L. Kutner, D. Warner, J. Almerigi, L. Baer, A. Nicholi, “Most Middle-School Boys and Many Girls Play Violent Video Games,” Journal of Adolescent Health Jul 2007.

1000 studies gathered from the Surgeon General’s office and the National Institute of Mental Health; early exposure to violence increases aggressive behavior: American Academy of Pediatrics: “Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children, Congressional Public Health Summit,” July 26, 2000,

Sixty percent of boys in grades three to six play video or computer games daily; favorite choice: Grand Theft Auto: Kids’ Takes on Media Survey, a study of 5700 students in grades three to ten conducted by the Erin Research for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2003: cited by J. Edmiston, “What Are They Watching?” Today’s Parent, Dec/Jan 2004.

Eighth grade boys lead time spent playing games averages 23 hours a week: B. Greenberg, “Children Spend More Time Playing Video Games Tan Watching TV, MSU Survey Shows,” Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Apr. 2, 2004.

Survey of 900 fourth-through-eighth grade students: half say their favorite electronic games involve violence: J. Leo, “When Life Imitates Video,” U.S. News & World Report, May 3, 1999.