November 5, 2012

My Video Game Confession

Hugo Scornik, M.D., F.A.A.P.

            Let me start this post with an introduction. I am an overworked general pediatrician practicing in Conyers, Georgia and by no means do I consider myself a child media expert.
            And now the confession:  a few years ago, after hearing months of pleading and begging from my boys, ages ten and eight at the time, I let them purchase Call of Duty, the wildly popular, yet violent, video game. The game is rated Mature, for ages 17 and up, with “blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language” according to the label.
            When my kids brought the game home, I was surprised to learn that they already knew how to play since they had been surreptitiously playing at their friends’ house. Their eyes lit up as they blasted their way through the various levels.  In one particularly vicious scene, the player is asked to sneak up behind an enemy soldier and choke him with a chain. My young kids howled with delight. I observed them and wondered to myself, “What have I done?”
            But after a couple of months, a curious thing happened. My kids gradually lost interest in Call of Duty. They moved on, now more obsessed with playing basketball outside. While I realize that buying the game may not have been my best parenting moment, it seems that no permanent damage was done. My kids were no more violent. Their grades never slipped. They still enjoyed plenty of outside time and activities with their friends. In fact, I felt a bond develop between my kids and me as they implicitly thanked me for trusting them with the game.
            How can this be? Why do some children (and adults) become obsessed with video games while others easily maintain a healthy balance? Why are some not able to properly separate fantasy and reality while others seem not to be affected at all? I was curious enough to conduct a literature search but could find no clear answers. On the one hand, habitual video game play has been shown to increase short term aggression in children (Anderson et al, Pediatrics, 2008) and can become so excessive in some as to be described as “pathological” (Gentile et al, Pediatrics 2011). On the other hand, I could find no definite cause and effect between criminality and video game playing. It’s also interesting to note that according to FBI crime statistics, violent crime among youths has hit historic lows at the same time that video game popularity has soared.
            As pediatricians grapple with the impact of video games on children, it’s easy to state that no child should ever be exposed to these games. But this may be too simplistic; remember that long before there were X-Boxes, the corruption of our youth had been blamed on everything from comic books to rock and roll music. Furthermore, other exposures may have a much larger impact. Exposure to a dysfunctional family, to a violent neighborhood, or a mental health disorder is far more likely to create a violent individual.
            So in my clinic, I do ask about video game play but I also attempt to put this habit in the larger context of the world in which the child is living. I often fall back on common sense and experience when crafting my advice knowing that being overly dogmatic usually doesn’t work. As a parent, I try to strike this same balance, even if it means occasionally trusting my children’s instincts over my own.