Video games:  Help or hazard to children's health?


Are video games hazardous to children's health -- as the nation's Surgeon General C.  Everett Koop said the other day in Pittsburgh?

It depends, authorities say.  Even Koop, a Philadelphia pediatrician, later made it plain he was expressing a personal opinion that was not based on scientific evidence. 

That clarification came after the National Coin Machine Institute accused Koop of making a "rash and unthinking, thinly veiled bid for media exposure" that might damage "a legitimate and important industry, one of the few where employment remains high.  "

The trouble with picking on video games is this, concerned experts say: There is no nice, neat body of research that can provide a "yes" or "no" answer to questions about the effect of the games on developing children and adolescents. 

The reason: video games came on the scene almost out of nowhere, proliferated, and now blanket the country.  They have not been around long enough to study scientifically. 

They are tucked into candy stores near schools, sprawl in huge arcades, make money for activities on college campuses, gobble quarters in bars, and almost everywhere have established a beachhead in homes and even hospitals. 

Most concern over the video games stems from the unknown long-range effect on kids who become video game addicts.  A report at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics last month claimed this is happening and that some kids skip school to keep the play going. 

The report from Dr.  H.  James Holroyd, University of Southern California "technology abuse" specialist and professor of pediatrics, said some children finance their play with snitched quarters. 

Holroyd defines "technology abuse" as the misuse of such devices as video games, wearable stereos, television and cars. 

The La Canada, Calif.  , pediatrician said he has documented reports from Gamblers Anonymous that greatly disturb him when he thinks of kids hooked on video games  -- the newest possible victims of "technology abuse.  "

Holroyd said the WL studies show those who get into the worst trouble gambling were hooked on pinball machines in adolescence. 

Holroyd also is chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Accident Prevention and Poison Control.  The time that addicted kids spend before video game sets -- in arcades or in their homes -- upsets Holroyd. 

The youngsters are missing social interaction, school and exercise – main threads in the fabric of an adolescent's life, he said. 

Holroyd predicted hooked kids have a good chance of winding up as stunted adults.  They will not be fully developed socially, intellectually, emotionally and perhaps not even physically -- due to trading off sports and exercise time for a long, daily rendezvous with the video game. 

On the lower level of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, kids outside a huge video game arcade intercept commuters to beg quarters. 

Should the kids be in school? If they don't get the quarters by begging, is a rip-off the next step? Are they addicted?

The scene is not rare on the on the electronic gamescape. 

In East Bernard, Texas, Mary Ann Leveridge, president of the National PTA, says truancy linked to video games is a nationwide phenomenon. 

"Everywhere I go people talk about video games, caused some problems, ” she said.  "They've Mrs.  Leveridge has been in 38 states over the past 15 months, and concern over video games comes from everywhere, she said.  The PTA's board, which Mrs.  Leveridge heads, just adopted a position statement on video games. 

"The PTA is concerned over the increasing number of video game sites which may have an adverse effect on many of the young people who frequent such establishments, " the report begins. 

"Initial studies have shown that game sites are often in close proximity to schools.  In many cases there is not adequate control of access by school-age children during school hours and which compounds the problem of school absenteeism and truancy. 

"Where little or no supervision exists, drug-selling, drug use, drinking, gambling, increased gang activities and other such behaviors may be seen. 

"Where there is diligent supervision and adequate lighting, however, the interest of the customers centers on the games.  .  . 

"State PTAs should encourage their units to become aware of, and to educate their membership and community regarding, activities of young people at business establishments having video game machines, and the impact these machines have on school attendance, alcohol and drug activity.  "

Mrs.  Leveridge said that, "Testing in Texas shows children in grades 3, 5, and 9 have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction.  All that time spent before the television set seems to have something to do with it.  Video games can't help the situation. 

"The higher thinking skills are learned by reading.  "

At the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr.  David Pearl said no federal money currently is behind research on the effect of video games.  However, Pearl, chief of the behavioral sciences research branch, said he would consider funding proposals that are solidly structured. 

Pearl directed recent studies that found many children and youths have been desensitized to violence as a result of viewing murders and brawls on TV. 

Psychologists say when people are desensitized to violence they are not likely to go to the rescue of persons in distress.  They just watch. 

Pearl said if what was learned from the television study applies to the video games, he thinks there's a real problem. 

He personally feels violence is an element in video games and that the effect on behavior will be negative for some players. 

Holroyd doesn't see much hope of curbing violence in video games, if past is prologue. 

"During the past 10 years, " he said, "most studies have suggested that TV violence is strongly correlated with aggressive behavior.  The American Academy of Pediatrics in January of 1977 called for a reduction in the amount of violence shown on TV, and the elimination of violence in programming aimed at young audiences. 

"But little or nothing has changed.  "

Holroyd deplored the fact there is little or no research on the effect of abusive use of video games by children and adolescents. 

"The abuses surfacing early in the era of these relatively new games are causing parental and community concern, '' he said. 

"The industry presently is making approximately $6 billion per year.  Some 22 billion quarters per year drop into the slots of video games. 

"Many of those are dropped by teenagers, using their lunch money or money earned for future education from newspaper and other jobs. 

".  .  .  thefts from parents and others are reported to maintain the habit. 

"Another concern in communities across the country is the absenteeism from schools by teenagers playing the arcade’s video games. 

"This has reached such an extent in some parts of the country that city ordinances have been passed limiting video game arcades in various ways.  ''

Here's how Holroyd wound up his "technology abuse" report to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

"Society's problem is how to deal effectively with video games as a new technology impacting our youth. 

"There is a struggle going on between video games and other priorities for their time -- concentration, social development, use of their available money and their psychological maturity. 

"Video electronic advances may be one of the big sleepers waiting to help us prevent the very abuse we fear.  In video games  .  .  .  we may have our best tool to accomplish what we missed as TV advanced, and prevent abuse early.  ''

The technology that sired video games can be turned to good use, Holroyd claimes. 

"The use of computers in academic games as part of the learning process in our schools is perfectly consistent with the world of our teenagers' future, '' he said. 

"Where schools have begun this technology, the students have caught fire and become as eager learners as they were eager ' arcade freaks.  '

"Given the opportunity to use this new technology in such positive ways may decrease abuse of the same. 

Under controlled use, Holroyd said, "all of the abusive problems could disappear.  Even in the home, video television game -type homework could be an educational plus. 

"Society, however, needs to persuade the video-production industry to produce responsible, educational material for this fantastically available education tool. 

"Even in the recreational arcade or home video games, programming can be of a positive nature. 

"The industry can produce it, if we insist that it is necessary and salable. 

"Couldn't a teenager enjoy an exciting chase, or game of survival against the elements to help a person or save a life, just as much as going for a ‘kill’?

"I believe they could.  "

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