Parenting Article: Are Violent Video Games Hurting Your Child's Brain

Parenting Article - As a caring parent, you may be concerned about the amount of violence in today's computer and video games. Some experts say that violence in video games and media adversely affects our children, while others claim that playing video games helps improve hand-eye coordination. In this article, you will learn what cutting edge research tells us about happens when a child's developing brain is repeatedly exposed to images of violence, so you can make an informed decision about whether to allow and/or limit violent computer and video games in your home.

First, a little brain science. Babies are born with approximately 100 billion neurons in their brain. At birth, they have formed more than 10,000 neural connections which pales in comparison to the quadrillions of connections that will be formed over a lifetime. At birth, a baby's brain is primed for growth.

Parenting article key point: What fires together, wires together. This underscores the importance of positive experiences to the developing brain.

The mantra of today's neuroscientists is: "what fires together, wires together." This means that the experiences a child has create certain types of neural networks. (In my book Keepers of the Children, I emphasize that the brain builds a network that can survive or thrive in its environment, depending upon the support, care and responsiveness of the parents, caretakers and the level of stress in the child's home. Chronic stress impairs the brain which may make a child more susceptible to stress and anxiety in the future.

Parenting article key point - What fires together, wires together in the brain.

Parents of teens won't be surprised to learn that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex which can be thought of as the brain's supervisor and is responsible for making decisions, managing urges, impulses and acting with diplomacy. The prefrontal cortex begins its development in adolescence, starting with a process called pruning which can wipe out entire neural networks in a child's brain. This is where the adage "use it or lose it" applies and explains why a child who has made reasonably sound decisions in the past may suddenly start behaving impulsively.

Parenting article key point - Research shows that the prefrontal cortex is disengaged when a child is playing video games.

Couple neural pruning with blossoming (the creation of new neural networks that are formed through daily experience) and a teen video gamer's compulsive need to play violent video games and you have a recipe for disaster. The reason becomes clear when you understand that recent brain research shows that the prefrontal cortex is disengaged when exposed to violent images, while the aggression center of the brain is activated. (MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging is the technology used by today's scientists to look inside the brain and determine which areas light up when engaging in certain activities.)

What this means to parents of an adolescent gamer is that at the height of the development of the prefrontal cortex (the brain's supervisor and the seat of our humanity), this all-important part of the brain is repeatedly disengaged. Of course, parents should be equally disturbed to learn that while this is happening, the aggression center of the brain is lighting up like a slot machine.

Parenting article key point: Video game addiction is such a problem in some countries that these countries have established treatment centers.

Of course this will come as no surprise to parents who have observed their children before, during and after playing violent games, such as World of Warcraft (which is an internet game with over 9 million users worldwide) or Call of Duty, an Xbox game. Although it's important to have brain researchers on our side, we don't need science to prove to us that violence is junk food for a growing brain (and adult brains too.) Most parents have known this all along.

You may be surprised to learn that video game addiction is fast becoming a problem in countries like Korea, where technology has advanced at a faster rate than in the United States. To date, Korea has forty treatment centers that are dedicated to "video game addiction." As a parent, this alone should give you pause.

Parenting article key point: when video gamers stop play, their brains create less dopamine—a feel-good brain chemical.

For professionals who have noticed that the word "addiction" is overused in our society and understand that, by definition, an addiction has physical withdrawal symptoms, you may wonder how video game play could be characterized as an addiction. After all, what are the withdrawal symptoms? This was the question I posed to David Walsh, PhD, author of eight books and one of our countries foremost experts on media exposure and the developing brain. According to Dr. Walsh, the answer is in what happens in the brain. Video game play releases excess dopamine in the brain which gives the gamer a rush of feeling good (and I suspect, powerful). In order to maintain that sense of feeling on top of the world, the gamer must play continuously. Without it, the gamer experiences what I call a "dopamine crash."

End of Part I of Parenting Article on Video Games and the Developing Brain. In Part II, I will explore the implications of what we've uncovered in Part I. Stay tuned to gain a more thorough understanding of how exposure to video games and media affect the developing adolescent brain. As I write the next part of the series, I welcome your input, observations and stories. I'd like to know whether you allow violent video games in your home (or violent t.v. shows or movies) and how you limit or don't limit your children's exposure. Please complete the survey below and contribute to this work. Your information will be kept confidential.

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Do your children play violent video games? If so, please list some of the titles of the games.
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Copyright © 2007 by Laura Ramirez. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied in full or in part without the written consent of the author, however, feel free to link to it from your web site, blog, forum or Myspace. parenting article

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