Monday, 23 August 2010

The Boy and his Computer, or 5 ways to protect him from electronic danger

What is it with boys and computers, eh?  I mean, sure girls will play computer games, too, but research shows that fewer girls than boys display addictive behaviour when it comes to gaming, and it all seems to come down to the way their brains are wired.

An article called Boys and Video Games: A Natural Attraction? reports the fact that three brain structures -- the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and orbitofrontal cortex -- were stimulated more in the male brain than the female during a controlled test of reactions to computer gaming.

These three areas of the brain matter when one looks at their functions.  The first, the nucleus accumbens, is the region involved in motivation and reward, feelings, and drug addiction   The second, the amygdala, are a pair of regions in the temporal lobe (located toward the bottom of the brain near the ears) and are linked to emotions and aggression, and more importantly for this post, to forming patterns related to learned addictive behaviour. The final region, abbreviated as OFC, can be found in the frontal lobe of the brain and has been implicated in a variety of psychiatric and neurological conditions including anxiety, mood, and addictive disorders.

Three regions, three mentions of addiction.  

Further research shows a connection between gaming and addiction.  Harris Interactive reports that, in a study done in 2007, 31% of boys felt addicted (compare with only 11% girls).  Nearly half of all respondents thought they had a friend who was addicted.

What are the symptoms of video-gaming addiction?  
  • a sense of euphoria when playing; 
  • excessive game play and thoughts about gaming; 
  • neglecting family, friends, and school or work; 
  • physical symptoms such as migraines, weight gain, and sleep disturbances.
Notice that these symptoms aren't just about playing games a lot.  They are very deep changes that affect the child's life and relationships.  Lack of motivation, withdrawal from family, failure to engage in normal living activities like eating, hygiene, chores. Worryingly, doctors have noted that one out of ten youth gamers showed enough symptoms of damage to their school, family, and psychological functioning to merit serious concern (see Harris Interactive article above).

So what can we do? Well, like so many of these sorts of things, it's probably more a case of balance and common sense than expertise.  Here are my top 5 suggestions, gleaned from a quick trawl on the internet and putting my own thoughts to it:
  1. Set time limits. The general consensus is that you should set time limits, but that you will probably want to discuss them with your child so he knows you're being fair and logical. Different games probably get different limits: some sports games, for example, could reasonably be completed in fifteen minutes, while an action-adventure quest will, even after a generous allowance of a half-hour or an hour, need to be abandoned, saved, and returned to another day.  Just remember that the final decision should be yours, and that you need to monitor that the limits are adhered to, or else the limits might become meaningless.
  2. Set location limits. Experts seem as one voice on this: no computer in a child's bedroom.  The media must be monitored for his safety and his sanity.  However, I personally don't think this goes far enough.  I say, get the computer out of the heart of the home -- otherwise, it's too much temptation for everyone, and I'm speaking from experience.  Recently, we've had to move the computer into our schoolroom while remodeling takes place.  That means it's right in the middle of all our activities.  I've noticed that, since the computer has been placed here, I'm no longer checking e-mails just once a day (or should I say, late in the evening, after the kids have gone to bed), but now it's more like every hour, just because it's so accessible. I also notice how much more I'm being nagged for computer time (and with four kids, that's a lot of nagging!).
  3. Set genre limits. What I mean by this is that you choose carefully the games that are being played.  Some games are more addictive than others.  Those that create a community and require long periods of time to play them are the most dangerous: that includes Warhammer, World of Warcraft, and the like.  I'm not saying don't let them play them, but I am saying that they contain more addicting elements, so if your child hasn't entered that world yet, perhaps you should encourage more stand-alone games, educational stuff, or even games that can be played in pairs.  And if your child has joined Warhammer, et al?  It's time to be especially vigilant.
  4. Change the scenery.  If it's getting too much, then leave the media frenzy behind entirely and go on holiday, or at least, out of the house for a walk.
  5. Get a life (err, I mean, a hobby).  When I was at university, I noticed a lot of my friends were addicted to watching soap operas on t.v.  I didn't have time to do that, because I played basketball for the varsity team and my life centred around classes, studying, and practising.  I'm not advocating that kind of commitment for your child, but I am suggesting that having few or no outside interests will fail to provide an alternative to the lure of the computer.
Get outside if it's all too much

I want to end this blog post with a request: one of my favourite authors about boy-things, Michael Gurian, has a new book out called The Purpose of Boys (just released in paperback) in which seven pages are dedicated to exactly this topic, boys and the media.  In the UK, the book is due out in a couple weeks' time, so I'm not able to avail myself of the treasures within just yet.  It's certainly on my wishlist, but in the meantime, maybe someone in the US has read it already and can let me know the gist of what it says!

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