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As a psychologist, I see many children with learning and concentration problems, as well as children who have difficulties with social skills and aggression. There is a school of thought which says that these problems have increased tremendously in the last decade. Television, and specifically computer games are being blamed for this increase. Some people feel so strongly about this that they have banned their children from playing any form of computer game or, in extreme cases, from watching television altogether.

There are many different computer games available, ranging from educational maths to virtual war. Computer games are available for the home PC or can be played in different forms at Amusement Arcades and many Corner Shops. There is something for every age group (adults included!) and very few Western middle class children in the world today have not been exposed to computer games. Sales of computer games run into billions of dollars annually.

Creators and marketers of these games, understandably, claim that their games enhance all sorts of developmental skills in children. According to them, hand-eye coordination, concentration, planning, problem-solving, etc., are all skills which are developed by allowing your children to play computer games. Some of these claims might have an element of truth, especially in the case of games which are specifically designed with the development of these skills in mind. It is also true that children learn by playing. And computer literacy and knowledge are life-skills without which your children will struggle when they are adults.

Does this justify the hundreds of hours children spend playing computer games every week in homes across the globe? Does it absolve parents from the responsibility of choosing the games their children play with care?

Many of the children I see in my practice spend more than 20 hours a week playing computer games. Most of these are not educational games, but violent and aggressive games involving killing, racing and conquering. Some children referred to me have clear signs of addiction to the computer games, developing withdrawal symptoms when they are removed.

I have always advised parents to limit the time their children spend on their computer games to one or two hours a week at most and to choose the games their children play carefully. Without exception, this has resulted in some improvement in the presenting problem in children who are exposed to excessive computer games.

Research has been difficult to carry out and evaluate. Up until recently there have been strong correlations found between excessive computer games and concentration and learning problems in children. Other research has suggested links between computer games and poor social skills. Most research done has been flawed for various reasons and, while evidence is mounting, there has been no conclusive evidence so far that excessive exposure to computer games can be dangerous to children.

However, a recent study reported in the Sunday Times, London has, for the first time, provided evidence of a link between violent computer games and aggression in teenage boys. The research, carried out by John Colwell of Middlesex University, demonstrated that aggression in teenage boys increased with the amount of exposure to the games, suggesting a strong causal link. The research also showed that boys who spent longer hours playing the violent computer games were more likely to be socially withdrawn and that their computers were acting as substitutes for friendship. When in the company of other children, the heavy "users" tended to push, hit and bully other children much more than those who did not play the games regularly. This effect has also been noted in studies of younger children (Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University).

While any teacher or psychologist could have verified this long ago (and many parents, too!), now that the research results are starting to come in, it is more than time to take a good, hard look at the way our children are spending their free time. And children who are playing computer games for more than 20 hours a week are doing little else after school hours. That means not much homework, sport, socializing with friends, hobbies and pastimes.

And given the levels of violence and violent crime in the world today, can we really allow our children to think that violence is a "game"? Would it not be better for them and their future world if we rather discussed the meaning and consequences of violence with them and led by example?

Do you know how many hours your children spend playing computer games?

Michele Carelse is a Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Counselor with more than 12 years experience in her field. She is also the founder of
Feelgood Counseling - an online counseling service and resource center, including email counseling, free support groups, recommended reading, articles, newsletters and much more.

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