nature-cat-insectsI have two memories of the third grade. First, it was the year I started learning my times tables. I’m still pretty good up to the 10s, but today I need a calculator for anything higher. Second, third grade was the year I was introduced to the Oregon Trail video game. While I can’t remember how many times my wagon caught fire, one of my children got measles, or my oxen were stolen, I do remember looking forward to my turn to sit in the corner of the classroom so I could work my virtual way to the Willamette Valley.

We’ve come a long way from floppy disks and green screens. Today’s video and app games are striking in their realism. They can be user-friendly enough for preschoolers, and complex enough for high schoolers. And because the average American child spends about 7 percent of their waking hours playing video games, it’s worth a few minutes to discuss how we as parents can help our kids make the most of the time they spend in these virtual worlds.

Video games run the gamut from first-person shooter games to strategy games to sports games. The kind of video games that make the news most are those that are considered violent. Indeed, concern about video game content, such as violence, has led the video game industry to develop a rating system similar to that used by the movie industry. Ratings categories suggest age appropriateness and start at “Early Childhood” and end at “Adults Only.” Most games fall somewhere between these categories. What gets missed, however, is that beyond all the violent and crude video games, there are some games that are surprisingly educational. And when played together by parent and child, some interesting things can happen.

For example, a 2011 study among kids ages 11-16 found that positive parent-child connectedness was a result of parents playing age appropriate video games with their daughters. In addition, the same study found that girls reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and more “symptoms” of kindness and generosity, when they frequently played video games with their parents. In other words, as with TV and other forms of media content, research suggests that parents’ involvement in kids’ video gaming experiences can do a lot toward helping kids enjoy the good and avoid the bad that comes with media.

Parents can do several things to help their kids get the most out of time spent with video games, such as:

Play video games together. If your child is into video games, join them! The authors of the study mentioned above suggest that joining children in an activity they enjoy can send the message that what your child likes to do is important and interesting to you. Playing together can also create opportunities for conversations that might not otherwise take place. If video games aren’t your child’s thing, join them in whatever it is they like to do.

Check video game ratings, but don’t rely solely on ratings. Have you ever been to a movie and left wondering how in the world it ever attained that rating? Video games are no different. Ratings provide a decent starting-point guide, but parents should do their homework about specific games before letting their children dive in. Ask around to friends or family. Or check for reviews on sites like Common Sense Media.

Find educational, creative games. Some of the best video games help kids learn problem-solving skills, math skills, and self-confidence. In addition, some of your kids’ favorite educational TV programs have video or app games that reinforce the lessons taught in the show. And the best thing is, many of these games are inexpensive, and in some cases, free.

Talk, talk, talk about game content. Kids, especially young kids, need parents’ help to interpret content they encounter in video games. Parents can help reinforce educational lessons, direct the child toward important content, direct them away from undesirable content, and help children learn to decide on their own what constitutes good or bad content. Talking with them, more than anything, will help them learn how to think about media, instead of simply what to think about media.

While we as parents look back with nostalgia on old Atari games, the original Super Mario Brothers, and visits to the arcade, our children are now creating their own memories of time spent with video games. By getting involved now in some small way, my hope is that our children will look back on their own memories with fondness, not simply because the games were fun, but because we were sitting there next to them shaping and guiding their experiences.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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