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Monday, July 9, 2012

Handheld Video Games Open Kids To Online World

(Flickr/courosa)

Handheld video gaming systems, like the Nintendo DS or Playstation Vita, provide kids with a lot more than just the latest Pokemon and Super Mario games.

They’re powerful computers that allow players to communicate with one another via the Internet or even independent wireless networks, set up specifically for gamers to communicate with one another.

Parents Unaware Of Internet Access

The problem is, many parents aren’t aware that these wireless functions exist.

“Many of these devices now come with web browsers,” Scott Steinberg, author of “The Modern Parents Guide to Kids and Video Games,” told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. He tested the Nintendo DS and found that it was easy to go online to sites that aren’t suitable for kids. “I actually went to some disreputable websites… much to my wife’s chagrin.”

The wireless capabilities allow kids to play against their friends. But they could just as easily play a stranger, which raises questions about what they’re saying to your children during these games.

Disabling Wireless Access

Steinberg points out that you can disable the wireless controls, normally with the press of a button. Or you can limit access by navigating the maze of instructions, which typically come in books that run 50 pages or more.

Steinberg says parents need to educate themselves about the capabilities of the devices. But more importantly, they need to educate their children about the dangers of talking to strangers online, since eventually, the firewall will come down.

“I really think we need to be teaching this in school at the earliest age,” Steinberg said.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Modern Parents Guide to Kids and Video Games’

By: Scott Steinberg

SETTING GROUND RULES

By now, we’ve established several facts about gaming, and have explored common concerns, benefits, and the many ways that electronic entertainment can impact your home. But as compelling as digital diversions are, making them a part of the family dynamic isn’t all fun and games.

At the end of the day, you still have to regulate age appropriateness, time limits, play habits
and more—and that means establishing some ground rules. As video games go, it’s vital to set some guidelines up-front, so that everyone is on the same page. That way, should rules be broken, kids clearly understand why they’re being punished and what the penalties are.

Mary Heston from Wired Moms, an Internet safety and advocacy group and proponent of family video game time, recommends using the printable PACT (a pledge between parents and kids and guide to healthy gaming that families can agree to abide by) from GetGameSmart.com as a starting point for families looking to make gaming part of their lives. Doing so engages not just parents, but also children, and encourages all parties involved to take an active role in discussions that shape the role which games will play within the household. “Having a discussion with your kids before you even go out shopping for games empowers [families] to make better decisions and definitely prevents confrontations at the video game store,” she advises.

In setting these rules, spend time considering expectations and areas of concern for you and your kids. Your goal should be to create a healthy, balanced environment in which your family can enjoy—and benefit from—video game software and systems. The best way to determine rules that will work for your family is to discuss key issues.

Here are several questions you might ask in order to best set ground rules for your home:

What role will games play within our household?
What benefits would we like to see come from play?
What are our family’s top worries and concerns?
Where should game play happen?
What kinds of games or content are acceptable?
Is online play okay?
At what age is video gaming appropriate?

We’ll examine each of these questions in-depth more below, and have provided a worksheet and questionnaire at the end of this book (see Appendix U: Discussion Guide and Checklist) which includes these questions and more to help your family establish its own guidelines.

What role will games play within our household?

Are games expected to be family affairs, where the whole clan is involved? Or are they alright to be enjoyed as solitary pursuits, where the gamers in your life can escape from other elements of the daily routine? Before you answer these questions, consider that there is always room for balance. How often have you spent hours reading your favorite books, blissfully alone and privately lost in the story? Needless to say, there is a place for solitary engagement as well as for family fun.

Perhaps the answer to this question isn’t all or nothing, but rather some balance between group
engagement and personal downtime. Of course, in some families, kids play together, in which case there is room for even more interaction, and today’s games offer a great opportunity for the whole family to be involved. However you choose to allow games to be consumed though, remember to always do so in moderation.

What benefits would we like to see come from play?

Current research suggests that video game players are actually learning and experiencing a lot of positive things during play sessions. Douglas Gentile, a researcher from Iowa State University, writes that there are at least five ways in which video games affect players simultaneously:

Amount of play, content of play, game context, structure of the game, and the mechanics of gameplay. Each of these aspects can have positive benefits.

As detailed earlier, in addition to the obvious eye-hand coordination improvements gained through sustained play, studies show that video game players are actively increasing their critical thinking abilities, learning to become problem solvers and in many cases building skills in areas such as resource management, financial planning and team building while spending time behind the controller.  Video game play is also healthy for the imagination, and it gives players a sense of accomplishment or mastery, something as special to your kids as whatever was especially important to you when you were young. Being good at video game playing is socially acceptable, and in many cases celebrated, among young people today. And as they grow and move into careers and families of their own, many kids will continue to enjoy video game play while others may stop playing altogether.

What are our family’s top worries and concerns?
There are always dangers inherent in our kids’ activities, and it’s easy to worry when our kids spend a lot of time doing something. When playing sports, there is the danger of injury. If children read too much, they might damage their eyesight, or become anti-social. If they play video games, won’t they become violent or addicted?  Whatever your concerns, it’s best to identify them clearly. Whatever it is you most fear about video games, the suggestions in this book can help you better avoid or cope with their occurrence—if you are willing to get involved.

Where should game play happen?
Do you prefer to see video games played in public spaces like your living room, where you can actively monitor usage, or is it alright for kids to play alone in their rooms? We recommend restricting all computer, video game and cell phone usage to common areas. However, if you are comfortable with your kids playing in their own rooms or on different levels of the home (e.g. in the basement playroom), you may want to follow some of the suggestions in this book to keep lines of communication with them open. Doing so will help alleviate worries and ensure that you can more effectively guide them and enforce house rules.

What kinds of games or content are acceptable?
Game content varies from very safe and cartoonish to very edgy, violent and even frightening. As such, it’s imperative that you be acutely aware of the types of titles your children are interested in playing and consuming, or potentially exposed to via friends and family members. The need for active parental involvement in the research, purchasing and play processes, as well as establishment and maintenance of a healthy and balanced home life, cannot be understated.

Only by making a personal commitment to—and taking a direct, informed and ongoing role in—pursuing these endeavors can you ensure that video games exert a positive influence. Note that some kids who are in emotional turmoil and confusion may turn to inappropriate games, or play games excessively, even to the point of exhibiting signs of addiction. With communication and engagement you should be able to help any child in such a situation, identify the problem before it gets out of hand, and, as needed, effectively recommend professional help.  The more you talk to your gamers about how they are consuming specific games, and assume a proactive role in understanding these titles and how they’re played, the more you’ll be able to determine if some kinds of content are acceptable or not.

Is online play okay?
Online gameplay is very common today, and it can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. It’s also important to note that “online” doesn’t just refer to gameplay that’s happening on the computer. Nearly all of today’s home console systems, portable handheld gaming devices and smartphones offer some sort of connected, online experience.

One obvious concern about online play is safety. There are certainly dangers associated with online predators—people who may try to make contact with kids and victimize them—and “cyber bullies,” people who tease, taunt and bully others online and via various forms of social media. Although online predators are rare in online games, such people do exist. Cyber-bullying is somewhat more common, but there are steps you can take to help your kids cope with this problem. For more on these and other common safety issues associated with online gaming, see Chapter 10: The Dangers of Online Play.

Players may also get too involved in the online social structure of a specific game, wanting to play—in fact “needing” to play—a lot more than you might find appropriate. That is because, once they become involved with other real players online, they often form a society within the game, and your gamers are now part of that online society. They want to stay involved, and in some cases, they have accepted responsibilities within that society (often by way of participation within in-game organizations consisting of large groups of players called “guilds”).

This is not an altogether bad thing, but it can be a problem when your gamer says something along the lines of “I can’t go out to dinner tonight, Mom. I have to raid with the guild.” (Translated into plain English, “raid with the guild” means “I have to fulfill a role as part of a group effort by a large number of my friends, who are counting on me to help them accomplish a sizable task that none of us could accomplish alone… It’s really important to me.”)

Once again, communicating with players is the best way to know what’s going on and protect your kids. Even though these problems—and other notable concerns such as identity theft,harassment and sharing of inappropriate content—do exist, they are still rare, and hardly a reason to stop your kids from enjoying online play. However, for your own peace of mind, knowing what’s going on with your kids as relates to the Internet and educating them about hazards to look out for will help.

Another potential drawback to unsupervised online play is that many games, especially free to play online games, provide opportunities to purchase items and services using realworld money. This means that children could use your credit card to make purchases without your knowing it. Education is important: To minimize potential pitfalls, take time to familiarize yourself with how such games operate up-front, and discuss these principles with your children before allowing them to play online. Clear communication and setting boundaries over what is acceptable and what is not can prevent the unauthorized and unexpected use of your credit, and the real threat of cutting off the game entirely should be sufficient to prevent kids from abusing their privileges. Today’s home consoles and smartphones also have password-protected systems in place to protect against these types of purchases, as well as prohibit usage entirely or limit it to only authorized times.

On the flip side though, there are also many benefits to online play. There is the social aspect, in which players learn from each other, take on responsibilities toward each other, and also learn to share experiences and even tangible “goods” with each other. Players can also learn to work as teammates, each assuming specific roles as groups join forces to accomplish common goals for the benefit of all. In some cases, they even learn leadership skills. Online game players may further broaden their outlook and meet amazing people that they never would have encountered any other way through the hobby, much to their lasting lifelong gain.

At what age is video gaming appropriate?
Because video games have much to teach, especially in this modern era, there’s really no reason to prevent younger children from playing them. The key is to find age-appropriate games.  In some cases, younger children will have older siblings who are playing more mature games already. In these instances, it may be difficult to prevent the younger ones from being influenced— and even wanting to play—some of those games. Again, with supervision and communication, this may not become a major problem, but it always helps to take an active interest in children’s interests and play habits. That way, you’ll be better equipped to steer them towards alternate games that they will like—games more appropriate for their developmental or educational level.

Whatever the age at which kids begin to play though, insofar as young gamers are concerned, it’s important to set boundaries as relate to time limits, play habits and in-game content. For more advice on establishing ground rules, see Chapter 7: Guidelines for Healthy Gaming.
Excerpted from “The Modern Parents Guide to Kids and Video Games,” by Scott Steinberg.

Guest:

  • Scott Steinberg, author of “The Modern Parents Guide to Kids and Video Games”

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