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Q: My 13-year-old son began playing Call of Duty at home beginning in January of this year. We monitor his gaming and have him turn it off after a certain amount of time. He is now asking to “stream” with one of his favorite online players who does this on YouTube regularly. I am concerned with him participating in a real-time game visible over the internet (which includes running commentary from the players), but truthfully don’t fully understand what negative consequences might occur in doing this if he does not disclose name, address, etc. What is your take on this?

~Sensitive about streaming, Huntington Beach, CA

A: Dear Sensitive,

Live streaming video games allows gamers to broadcast themselves (via audio or video) and their gameplay to a public audience, and also allows them to interact with their audience via a chat interface. To understand the impact that live streaming may have, let’s first discuss the potential effects of the content of the game in general.

Any interactive media, particularly games, create an environment complete with a set of rules by which users must behave. Just like in our own culture, virtual environments reward certain behaviors and punish others. The more a user practices behaviors that are rewarded (in what psychologists call ‘behavioral scripts’), the more successful they will be in the virtual environment. Therefore, if your child is playing a sports game, puzzle game, or war game, he will be learning the skills required for mastery in each of those categories.

There is evidence that exposure to any media violence, such as playing or watching others play Call of Duty, desensitizes children (as well as teens and adults) to that violence. There is also research showing that for many, especially younger kids, exposure to violent media can  increase a child’s view  of the world as a mean and dangerous place and can increase their own aggressive thoughts and behaviors.

When kids play Call of Duty against others online, these effects move into an interactive space: Playing with others can provide an opportunity for collaborative problem solving, story creation, and social connection. However, there is also an opportunity for increased aggression: Players are no longer trying to survive by killing avatars generated by the game, but instead by killing avatars of other players (whom they may or may not know) in the most skillful ways possible. With streaming and the ability to communicate with others through running text commentary or through headphones, there is an added risk of mob mentality, where individuals’ collective excitement (coupled with the relative anonymity of the Internet) can cloud their judgment, empathy, and personal convictions, all of which are fluid and still being formed during childhood and adolescence. Just as a child can think more quickly and creatively when collaborating with peers on a streaming logic game, the effects of playing a violent game (anxiety, desensitization, change in world view, aggression) can be amplified when players compete in their ability to kill others, encouraged by the praise of their peers, in the game’s virtual environment.

Allowing your son to play a game tacitly condones it or says that you ‘agree’ with the content and the way it affects him. Subsequently, make sure that you do agree with your son’s gaming, including his choice of game, how long he plays, where he plays, how he plays, and with whom he plays. If you choose to let him stream, have him do so in an area of your home where you can monitor his actions and his language (which, unchecked, can “go commando”). Also, set ground rules around streaming, such as letting him know not to use his real name, address, and other contact information in his profile, and to only video-communicate with those users he knows (try using a service that allows private streaming). Let him know that you’ll be supervising and asking questions about the other people with whom he is playing—and then do actually supervise his game play. Monitoring his gaming in this way will allow you continue to parent him even in the streaming digital domain, while reassuring him that you are there should he need you.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

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