Grand Theft Childhood: Violence and Video Games

Youth culture is changing at a dizzying pace. Many of us raising teens, for example, didn't grow up playing video games. We hear about murderers who played hours of games before setting out on a shooting spree and anxiously watch the backs of our sons heads. Should we let them play? Which games will damage them? How much is too much? Are they losing precious hours of childhood that should be spent instead on playing Kick the Can with the neighbor kids?

If you've asked yourself questions like these about your gaming teen, take heart from a new book, GRAND THEFT CHILDHOOD: THE SURPRISING TRUTH ABOUT VIDEO GAMES AND WHAT PARENTS CAN DO by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Kutner and Olson, cofounders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, organized a $1.5 million federally funded study on the effects of video games. They gathered written surveys from more than 1,200 middle school students and over 500 parents, and interviewed dozens of teen and preteen boys and their parents. This book sums up their findings.

Why do kids love gaming so much? Kutner and Olson discovered that they game for the same reasons I play Scrabble on-line or you root for the Red Sox -- for excitement, escapism, and to relieve stress or boredom. Here's something else the researchers discovered that might be surprising: video games are an important social tool for young teen and tween guys:
Children viewed video game play as largely a social activity, not an isolating one. It did more than provide a topic of conversation; it provided a structure through multiplayer games in which they practiced and improved their verbal communication skills ... Two of the key tasks of adolescence are improving social skills and interpersonal communication ... the structure of the games allows them to test social boundaries and relationships in ways that they might not recover from as easily in face-to-face discourse.
Gaming connects them with their peers, giving them something to talk about. Interestingly, a total lack of exposure to video games was actually associated with getting bullied. But does that mean anything goes? Should we let them play as much as they want without any banning or limits? May it never be, as the apostle Paul once said, as do these Harvard educators. So what advice do they give to parents? In a concluding chapter, they echo what many of us have been harping about all along.

Stay involved in your child's gaming and on-line activities. By all means set boundaries and guidelines, but talk to your son as you do, which means learning some of the language he uses. Do you know the difference between a "first-person shooter" and a "third-person shooter"? Ask him if you don't. Use games to start conversations about the exploitation of women, gratuitous violence, racism, and even the arc of a hero's journey or the desire to protect and defend.

And here's an extra tip from me, learned at the University of Hard Knocks: watch your son play for a decent length of time, cheering him on in his quest, before saying anything about content. And don't let the discussion disintegrate into a one-way diatribe about demonic content. Key word: discuss. Family therapists use gaming to restore father-son relationships because it's the one place where a boy can be better than his Dad at something. It's a chance for them to teach us something for once.

The book closes by reminding us that gaming can provide insight into our child's real-world problems. They can be a place to notice a growing trend of anger, stress, boredom, or loneliness. And as a result, we can intervene with love and pray more specifically -- powerful age-old parental strategies that don't change over time.

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