Video games are a ubiquitous form of entertainment in today’s children and youth, and while fun and exciting, video games have a dark side that parents, teachers and clinicians can no longer afford to ignore. The recent rise in mass killings by gun, knife and moving vehicles, has wrongly focused on gangs and gun control as a primary intervention. Society would be wise to shift attention toward understanding the underlying components of a mass killer. While there are likely multiple factors contributing to the origins of mass killers, we do know that all shooters are gamers, and that gangs use video games to practice the art of shooting. Immersion in a virtual reality of violence has profound impact on developing brains, highlighting the urgency in looking at what type and how much violent media our children are exposed to, and at what age. Regarding brain and body development, what children do determines who they become. Children who excessively engage in mindless, fast paced, violent media content, will have a much different brain and body than a child who plays outside in nature. The new generation video games contain substantial amounts of increasingly realistic representations of physical and sexualized violence. The mature nature of such games is not suitable for children under the age of eighteen, yet many children I work with are playing violent, mature content as young as age 3. Managing video game use by children is not easy, but well worth considering with reference to the negative ramifications of gaming overuse on child health and wellness. Three parameters are important to consider in video game management: duration, content, and age of first exposure. Children who start gaming later in childhood, and who follow expert guidelines for game duration and content (see below), will demonstrate less negative effects. Whereas children who play fast paced, violent video games for long periods, and who start gaming as a young child, will exhibit a greater number of below noted negative effects. It is advised that children who experience 3 or more of the following escalating conditions should work with their parents, physician and/or therapist to reduce video game duration, change to non-violent content, and quit violent gaming altogether if < 12 years of age. This is a hard step for most parents to take, and an even harder step for parents with children exhibiting adverse effects of video games. Parents cannot continue to look away from these potential or real problems in their children. What we resists, persists; what we look at, disappears.
When children are gaming their bodies are sedentary and their hearts and brains overstimulated, causing significant physical harm. Developing bodies crave movement, yet video games entrance and hypnotize the brain into telling the body to sit still, often for very long periods. Psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley author of “Reset your child’s brain” reports that when children play video games, their sympathetic nervous system responds with a hyperarousal state of “flight or fight” characterized by adrenalin release from adrenal glands and dopamine production in the brain. We know that sustained high blood pressure and increased heart rate from prolonged gaming, increases risk for heart attack and stroke in later years. A child who plays video games who is also taking stimulant medication for adhd, or a gaming child who is physically unfit, increases their risk for eventual heart attack and stroke. In over 30 years as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have observed rapid escalation in prescription of stimulant medications to incredibly unfit children who refuse to participate in PE or outdoor activities. Causal factors for video game induced hyperarousal are fast paced and violent content, bright lights, rewards, multitasking, and interactivity. Long term high adrenalin stress states can result in chronic adrenal fatigue, implicated in a number of physical illnesses including cancer and autoimmune disorders.