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Q: My older son has been haranguing me for months to allow him to get an Xbox 360. He currently has a Wii but has deemed the games “stupid,” which is exactly why I allowed him to get it (with misgivings). But the games for Xbox are generally so violent that I could come up with only one or two that I would allow.

All the research showing how gaming can improve certain skills doesn’t change my gut feeling that video games are bad for him—my son seems so crabby after he plays them, unlike after he has been reading, and I am disturbed by the almost junkie-like craving he has to play them. It seems to be true that “all of his friends” have them and are allowed to play hours of the most violent games out there. The issue costs us hours of conflict and family distress. I tell myself I am not technologically savvy, so maybe I just don’t “get it.” I am extremely confused as to what to do.

Wii Can't Work it Out, in Seattle

A: Dear Wii, 

You raise many important issues in this question. First, your wariness around your son’s exposure to media violence is certainly warranted—there is a good deal of research into its potential harmful effects on kids. It sounds like a major part of the challenge with limiting his exposure, as is often the case, is that his friends play precisely the games you’d like him to avoid. That sets the expectation that he should be allowed to play these games. And it might even feel that way to you.

But let’s pretend for a moment that we’re talking about something more familiar than video games: fast food. If your son asked for fries at every meal, saying that all of his friends were eating them, it would probably feel easier to set limits because you are likely comfortable in your understanding of how fries at every meal can affect his health. Only recently do we have similar scientific evidence to help us make decisions about what media to feed children’s developing minds. Keeping that evidence front and center in your mind can help you orient yourself toward setting these limits.

That said, in the situation you’re describing, the question has expanded beyond whether to allow your son to play video games with violent content. Rather, his “junkie-like craving” to play them and his “crabbiness” after playing are important signs that he may have some addiction-like gaming issues that are interfering with his mental and social well-being. This kind of issue, which is common but not widely recognized in the U.S. (although it is recognized in Asia), likely can’t be addressed with standard limit setting. 

Instead, it is likely time to deal with this as you would with any dependency—by seeking professional psychological help. When your son challenges your concern for him, which he almost certainly will, ask him to demonstrate that he can limit his play to ½-1 hour a day, after all of his other obligations (like homework, a sit-down, media-free meal with family, physical activity, and a good night’s sleep) are taken care of. Being unable to do that should help demonstrate to him that he has a problem that needs addressing.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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