While there’s good and bad in every form of media, looking for a neutral account of “the Effects of Gaming” can make you feel like a cryptozoologist – especially where kids are involved. Most writers on media effects opt to give readers exactly the stories and opinions they want to hear. We have many choices in where we get our news, after all; when it’s not making us happy, the next site is just a mouse click away. But the irksome fact is that games aren’t just good or bad, for kids or anyone else. Moreover, games tend not to be either life-threatening or single-handedly rejuvenating. For most children and adults, the effects are subtle. Human, even.

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Speaking about the press’ back-and-forth melee on games is Lisa Poisso, who writes a column at Massively about playing MMOGs with her two kids. “The media is still treating games as a Topic-With-A-Capital-T, as a phenomenon,” she says. “It’s all about headlines and extremes. Will gaming give you quicker reflexes and tune up your problem-solving abilities, or will it turn you into an emotionally flat, antisocial conniver?”

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, little in this Kids and Gaming topic can be captured by headlines or one-off studies. It’s complicated. And, sure, that can be ominous. When I first started work on a book called Game Addiction, I knew full well that some regular folk would expect unflinching simplicity: “Children at age X should always do Y; letting kids game more than N hours per day is kuh-raaaazy,” etc. Journalists love simplicity, too. Imagine the Washington Post writer with five inches of column space and a readership that hasn’t gamed since Pong. Simple extremes make for handsome reading.

Yet, on their own, games don’t make or break a child; extremes hardly make any sense once you’ve seen how complicated little humans are. Children pass through various stages, each being a gauge of how far along they’ve come in developing their bodies and minds. Though two kids may be the same age, they could be in vastly different places developmentally. Each one is a different combination of genetics, environment and age – what’s potentially harmful to one specific child in one developmental stage can be innocuous to another in a different stage. Though most articles discussing kids and gaming seem blithely unaware of this (or happy not to mention it), we’re going to touch on four major developmental stages and how games may or may not fit within them.

We’ll start with the first stage: infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years (roughly ages 0-4). Children in their first year or so need attachment to other human beings; touch, affection, eye contact and real physical stimulation all help the brain develop. It may not seem like electronic entertainment is much of a factor for this age group, but the recent controversy over Disney’s Baby Einstein DVDs says otherwise. Baby Einstein falls under the category of “lapware,” interactive videos and software marketed as intelligence-enhancing for kids in this first stage (named as such because children are supposed to interact with the games while sitting on Mom or Dad’s lap).

Given our current knowledge of how a young person’s brain and body develop, some experts bid caution. In an interview, Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-founder of gaming addiction treatment center ReStart and co-author of Video Games & Your Kids, talks about a behavior called “self-soothing.” When kids use electronic mediums as binkies rather than dealing with emotions internally or through another living person, “there’s no learning besides ‘don’t feel your feelings, just distract yourself,'” says Cash. A study from the University of Washington a couple of years ago corroborates Cash’s advice. The study showed that language learning may actually be negatively influenced by lapware, specifically Disney’s Baby Einstein DVDs. In an interview with Time, Dr. Dimitri Christakis said, “The more [Baby Einstein] videos they watched, the fewer words they knew.” No wonder Disney has begun offering refunds to parents who felt misled by Baby Einstein‘s marketing.

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From infancy leading right up to adulthood, a child’s brain is constantly building and rebuilding itself to better handle what the child spends most of his or her time doing. It’s called “brain plasticity.” In the lower elementary stages (roughly ages 5-7), kids need to be wiring in as many different types of experiences as possible. They should be flexing their imaginations as well as their muscles, and flexing them in tandem. The development of the brain is linked to the body, in a process called “sensory integration.” Sensory integration isn’t an on/off sort of thing, where these connections are either integrated or not. Learning is a continuum, and effectiveness or lapses in brain organization tend to be subtle. Overall, the more varied connections a kid makes in this stage, the more of a foundation he’ll have for being successful at the football, debate or even hardcore gaming of later stages and adulthood.

While it’s crucial to the developing brain that children get a range of experiences, games may be uniquely capable of teaching certain skills. A white paper drafted by Henry Jenkins identified key literacies encouraged by game systems and the internet’s participatory cultures, things above and beyond reading, writing and math. Among these are learning to navigate new forms of media, not to mention processing the sheer volume of data and respecting the diverse voices found online. Such learning may be useful to children in the upper elementary years (roughly ages 9-10), where the development of socialization and strategic thinking are key.

Dr. Cash, however, remains skeptical. Given the current level of knowledge, Cash calls on the “cautionary principle,” recommending no screens before age 7 and suggesting anything before that risks interfering with normal child development. “The longer kids stay away from the internet, the better,” she says. “If their school requires them to start using it by 10-11, that’s OK. But do not associate the internet with entertainment … I think it’s analogous to parents handing their kids a joint.”

Two things bear mentioning here. The first is obvious: Games aren’t chemical substances. THC, the active compound in marijuana, mimics the body’s native cannabinoids, in effect raising the body’s natural dopamine dam. Rhetoric referencing cocaine, pot, booze, or any other physical substance is inappropriate. Such substances all have very specific effects. But just as importantly, accessible and rewarding behaviors can release dopamine to the point where one can form a behavioral addiction. In such an addiction, a person chooses the singular behavior they love over the many they’ll need to survive. And the natural defenses to this are always going to be weaker in humans who are not fully developed.

In adolescence (roughly ages 12-18), pressure mounts. This is where it helps for children to have tried on a few different hats. The more activities kids have foundations for, the more likely they are to find satisfaction in many diverse parts of their lives, and the less likely calculus, composition or hormones are to slow or scuttle their ship. While parents rightfully vary a lot in what kinds of content and themes they allow in their kids’ media, self-regulation is another matter. Even healthy adults sometimes have trouble regulating how much they play – it’s essential for them to manage their children’s play habits, even when their kids get fussy when they take away their games. Games are designed to be a fun release, not the only venue a child has for finding fulfillment.

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For parents, there’s also value in understanding what your kids are playing, not just how much they’re playing it. Websites like What They Play and Common Sense Media tell you what’s happening in the complex world of interactive entertainment. Modern consoles also include parental controls that allow parents to regulate what their kids play, though those aren’t exactly uniform. While grasping games, let alone moderating them, is an uphill battle for some parents, the variation between the games kids can play, online and off, violent or tame, adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

“Ultimately, it’s not about the games – it’s about being an aware parent, knowing your own kids’ personalities and needs and being involved in their lives on a day-to-day basis,” says Poisso, who has raised both of her kids around MMOGs. For her, using games as babysitters is simply bad parenting.”I don’t understand it at a personal level. You love your daughter, but you don’t care enough to take a look at or talk to her about what she’s doing all afternoon?”

No study or article can singlehandedly vindicate or decimate videogames. Attempts to do so flag their authors as poorly-read, if not disingenuous and self-serving. But this conversation won’t move toward a middle-ground on its own – it takes many small steps. Many more authors will inject unwarranted values judgments on scholarship and journalism. Those interested in either preserving or questioning games would do well to seek information as layered and value-judgement-free as possible.

The above examples skim a very small surface of a very deep pond. Children pass through stages, and their brains are constantly growing. They’re all different. Parents, in their knowledge of development and of games, in their skills and in how they ply them, are all different. The people debating this, whether they treat addictions or represent the games industry, are all different. All games are, of course, identical. You might step into this conversation certain that anything challenging gaming is baseless rhetoric. You might be a diligent parent on a quest for answers. You might be a pediatrician with hurting patients. But what’s important is that you’ve stepped in. Thanks.

Neils Clark researches media health, is the co-author of Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects, and has lectured at the DigiPen Institute of Technology. His opinions are his own.

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