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Psychiatrist says video games are influencing youth, and not for the better

New London - Video-game play is shaping the mental, social and emotional development of youth in overwhelmingly negative ways, leading to declines in school performance, sleep disorders, increased aggression, depression and a host of other problems.

That's the message child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul Weigle will deliver this morning to an audience mainly of school and mental health professionals who work with children and teens, though parents, too, are urged to take heed. His talk is titled, "Playing with Violence: The Mental Health Effects of Video Game Play."

"Video games have become a huge part of the landscape of childhood," Weigle, who works with youth at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield, said this week as he prepared for his talk today at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. "It's become the most prevalent mode of play, while social or imaginary play has gone by the wayside."

Weigle cited a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation survey showing that American children and teens spend an average of seven hours a day engaged with a variety of "entertainment screens" - television, cell phones, hand-held games, iPads, Internet games, Facebook and video games - and that it's not unusual for two hours or more of that to be spent playing violent video games. That's more time than they spend in school or doing homework, and second only to the amount of time spent sleeping, he said.

But it seems video games are also encroaching on sleep time. Among boys, 99 percent reported playing video games, while the figure for girls was 94 percent.

"Sleep is significantly worse for kids who played video games" before going to bed, Weigle said, citing a 2007 study in the journal Pediatrics. "They get less slow-wave sleep, and their verbal memory declines."

When parents come to him for help with their child's sleep problems, Weigle said, he often finds those children are habitually playing video games just before - or even in - bed, and recommends parents remove all computers and hand-held game devices from their children's bedrooms and set limits on the amount of time spent playing them.

Another study, published last year by the Association for Psychological Science, correlates new ownership of a video game system to declines in reading and writing performance compared to peers without the systems, Weigle noted.

"There's a powerful correlation to academic performance," he said. "The more you play the worse you do academically. And what are kids not doing when they're playing video games? They're not involved in other kinds of active play with other kids, like sports. "

In all, the growing body of research points makes a convincing case for parents to set strict limits on video game play and content, Weigle said. Following the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, he advises parents to allow their children to spend no more than two hours daily with electronic entertainment, and no more than 40 minutes of that with video games. In addition, parents should forbid games with the "M" (for "mature") rating, seek out "pro-social" games that emphasize positive problem-solving and community building over violent content, and require that all electronic media be used in common areas of the home.

Setting rules such as these is much easier, he noted, if parents establish and enforce them from the first time their child starts using video games rather than after habits are already formed. Excessive video game use, he said, activates the same areas of the brain as compulsive gambling, and aggressive behaviors that can be sparked by violent games can make it harder for parents to enforce new rules.

"It's important for parents to be proactive," he said. "When kids start getting very aggressive, parents don't want to push them" by taking away or limiting video-game use.

Dr. Vic Strasburger, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' most recent policy statement on media education, said Wednesday that talks like Weigle's help shine a spotlight on an issue that can hardly be overemphasized. The policy, released in September, advocates that schools do more to educate students about how they are affected by electronic media use and violent content.

"It's one of the most important influences on child and adolescent behavior that we know," he said.

In addition to undermining school performance and good sleep habits, there is also evidence that video-game use contributes to obesity, Strasburger said. And the connection between aggressive behavior and viewing violent video games and other media, he added, "is one of the most well researched." He cited an analysis of more than 2,000 studies and reviews used to develop the policy statement.

Overexposure to media violence "makes (children and adolescents) believe that the world is a meaner and scarier place than it is," the statement says.

"There's no question that kids seeing violence contributes to violent behavior, increases in aggression and an acceptance of the notion that violence is a solution to complex problems," Strasburger said. "Parents have to be vigilant. Parents think that if their kids are in their bedrooms watching TV or playing video games they're safe, and they're not. "

If you go

When: Today, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. (registration at 8 a.m.)

Where: Walter V. Baker Auditorium, Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, New London

Admission: free

Audience: Talk intended mainly for professionals, although parents may also attend. Registration is required at (860) 456-1311 extension 260 or: Space is limited.


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