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Video Games: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Negotiating the New World of  Digital Play with Complex Learners

Times have changed. Maybe you remember your parents saying something like:

“When I went to school I had to walk two miles uphill in a snowstorm.”

Today, this is what you might be saying:

“When I went to school there weren’t computers and iPads and video games. We actually read books and talked to each other!”

Parents today have a lot of new concerns facing their children’s learning and social experiences and the answers aren’t always clear. How much screen time does Becky have? Do you let little Johnny play Fortnite? Getting these kinds of questions as a parent is a relatively new phenomenon, and depending on who asks you might want to lie, brag, or run home and hide. That love/hate relationship we have with video games comes from a lot of mixed messages and unclear outcomes. Are you supporting your child’s development or encouraging violence? Do you feel like a bad parent or are you saving your sanity with some much needed quiet time?

And if your child has learning, sensory and attention difficulties, figuring out the best use of digital play becomes even more baffling. While the research is at times contradictory, here are a few things to keep in mind.

The Good

Video games are naturally appealing to Complex Learners. Their brains often crave stimulation and video games have plenty of it. For children who have difficulty reading social cues and making friends, gaming offers a “third space” that is not school or home where they can develop friendships and solve problems on their own without being physically present. Gaming for some kids can improve focus, improve motor skills, promote flexibility in a constantly changing environment, and decrease stress about making mistakes. Research has demonstrated that playing video games changes the brain’s physical structure. Just as exercise can build muscle, the powerful combination of concentration and surges of rewarding neurotransmitters, like dopamine, strengthen neural circuits that can build the brain.

The Bad

Many children with complex learning and attention issues can hyper-focus and video games are a perfect pitfall for procrastination and poor impulse control. Recent news highlights how racism, sexism, and bullying have come out of the shadows and are thriving online. It’s more important than ever that we talk with kids about what is appropriate behavior, what’s acceptable humor—and what’s not. Complex Learners left to go it alone may be vulnerable to negative influence so you still want to check in and monitor your child’s digital play. Parents can talk to their children about who they are playing with and what they enjoy about the game as a way to get to know and stay connected with them. Parents can also teach appropriate ways to respond when they see distrustful, harassing or hateful behavior.

Complex Learners often have difficulty with transitions and doing things they aren’t interested in, like homework. Trying to use video games as a reward and punishment can become tricky and create back and forth struggles around screen time. Instead of taking away video games as a form of punishment, work with your child to determine a baseline of time and then add extra time for positive behavior. You can also set up rules around homework or other activities that have to happen before access to video games. The important thing to remember is consistency. The more consistent you are with these rules, the more likely your child will be able to implement the structure successfully.

The Ugly

The World Health Organization in June 2018 declared gaming addiction as a mental health disorder. Some evidence suggests that that ADHD and other attention difficulties increase a child’s likelihood of video game addiction. It’s important to be aware of the signs of video addiction as it can increase anxiety and depression and have the same negative effects on the brain as drugs and alcohol. Addicted kids exhibit social phobias, irritability when unable to play, a drop in school performance, rage-filled episodes when game time is taken away, isolation from others in order to spend more time gaming and lying about the amount of time spent gaming. Setting boundaries and teaching moderation early are important, along with offering other activities and play environments where kids can be physically active.

Many people believed that the advent of television would corrupt our minds and make us lazy and unmotivated. Similarly, there are a lot of reactionary feelings about video games. But with the right approach, video games can provide key social and learning opportunities for your child.  Learning Works for Kids is a good resource for finding a balance and learning more about the benefits of video games for alternative learners. And you may have already found that certain games or specific rules have helped you manage digital play in your child’s life. Let us know!

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