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The impact of video games on child development is often misunderstood

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you live with kids, you may recognize this...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Whoa. How did he hit it off...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: One more shot.

CHANG: ...The sound of kids playing video games. Since the pandemic, kids spend more time online, and that is prompting more research on the impact of virtual activities on children. As part of our ongoing series Living Better, NPR's Yuki Noguchi wanted to find out more about video games.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: My brief stint in gaming ended in the mid-1980s, when a pocket-sized electronic game my grandfather bought at a Tokyo toy store broke. My parents were not sad to see it go. To them, it seemed like television, and prevailing wisdom then said TV rotted kids' brains. I carried these notions with me into parenthood. Clinical psychologist Kelli Dunlap talks to plenty of parents like me.

KELLI DUNLAP: One of the most difficult things about video games is that they have this really bad rap - that they're brain rot, they're stupid, they're not productive and therefore bad.

NOGUCHI: Dunlap is a parent, too, but one who appreciates games. She designs them and is community director for Take This, a mental health advocacy group within the gaming community. She says gaming and its effects on child development are misunderstood.

DUNLAP: You can use games to improve your social connections, to practice feeling emotions that we normally avoid like guilt or grief or shame. A lot of games bring those feelings out in us, and they give us a space to play with those feelings.

NOGUCHI: She says these are benefits not observed with TV or social media, which are passively consumed and more about marketing. That had not occurred to me. My two boys are 12 and 13. They're growing up in a digital world in a way I did not. I'm lucky. My sons are healthy, hardworking and kind to their chronically frazzled single mom. They've made raising them relatively easy and joyful, even in adolescence. Yet no amount of yelling, no games on school nights, or, not before dinner, worked. When they were young, I banned shooter games, but since middle school, bans have felt futile. So I asked experts who study gaming and children for advice, and several consistent themes emerged. One is to stop my obsession with limiting it. Like many people, I long for a recommended daily cap on game time the way nutritionists advise on grams of sugar. Doesn't exist, Dunlap says.

DUNLAP: Research has shown again and again and again that time spent playing video games is not predictive of mental health outcomes.

NOGUCHI: Because, again, gaming's effects differ from those of social media. Michael Rich directs the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital. He says parents should instead take stock of time spent outside gaming - homework, chores. Do they play outside? Why kids play games varies. Shy kids might find it easier to socialize there. Maybe it's a stress outlet. Rich tells parents to simply play with their child to find out.

MICHAEL RICH: What's happening is that you are saying, I love you; I respect you; I want to understand what is engaging you here.

NOGUCHI: Which is how I ended up playing again after three decades...

OK, remind me again.

KOJI: Left click to shoot.

NOGUCHI: ...With Koji (ph), my 12-year-old, patiently tutoring.

Oh, oh, I hit him. I hit him. Why isn't he dying?

KOJI: You have to reload.

NOGUCHI: What am I doing? I'm scoping in instead of shooting?

KOJI: No. Hold this, and then shoot. No, you died. They're shooting - oh. What?

NOGUCHI: As I start over, I see who else is playing. Invites pop up from people looking to team up.

These are your friends?

KOJI: Yeah. That's Ryan.

NOGUCHI: That's Ryan. OK.

KOJI: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: It's reassuring to know he's playing with actual friends. That's key because gaming is very social. British psychologist Peter Etchells says that's part of what makes games powerful training grounds. He studies behavioral effects of gaming at Bath Spa University. He says games involving quests, battles or creative projects, for example, are very complex tasks.

PETER ETCHELLS: It requires very kind of precise team building, thinking about timings and placement, good communication skills to coordinate with people. It's doing that sort of kind of coordinating work that's really useful for all sorts of things.

NOGUCHI: He says games can teach many types of skills. Why? They motivate users to improve by practicing over and over. So another reason to play is to know what your child actually takes away from the game. For example, I asked Koji to teach me how to make my avatar dance.

KOJI: It's kind of, like, a toxic thing. So if you, like, killed somebody and you, like, start dancing on them, that's, like, kind of toxic.

NOGUCHI: Oh, it is?

KOJI: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: I'm glad I asked.

Koji assures me he limits contact with unsportsmanlike people by interacting mostly with friends. Ohio University professor Jesse Fox studies game culture and says toxic behavior can thrive in games because parents tend not to monitor those spaces. Most often, she says, it takes the form of harassment of female gamers.

JESSE FOX: Games for girls aren't unlike other spaces, where girls can be shut out.

NOGUCHI: Fox says some deal with harassment by hiding their gender. Many quit gaming altogether. She says it's on parents like me with sons to listen in on conversations, discipline bad conduct just as I would offline. Parents can also help find games with more inclusive culture by design. For example, on Fortnite, my sons play using female avatars almost exclusively. I asked Kenzo (ph), my 13-year-old, why.

KENZO: That's, like, the culture of the game, I guess. The girls are seen as - it means you're trying hard, or, like, you're good at the game.

NOGUCHI: So do you feel like you know whether a person is a girl or a boy on this game in real life?

KENZO: No.

NOGUCHI: I realized what I had not understood. Games are just new spaces with different social dimensions and cultures. Many things are possible in video games - good, bad or just plain wild. But isn't that also true of real life? I feared technology had turned playtime into an entirely different, scarier beast. It hasn't. Nor have the fundamentals for parenting around games changed, either. You love them, support them and help them navigate as best you can. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.