BYLINE: Kate Hilpern
If anything short of a new computer game from Santa this Christmas will be a huge disappointment to your child, it may be time to re-think the place of technological toys in his or her life. In fact, regardless of what your kids would like to see under the tree this year - and indeed, regardless of how old they are - there's never been a better time to think carefully about technological toys.
After all, you want to make the most of the huge choice of tools promising to educate and amuse your children, but you don't want to lead them on a path towards the growing problem of computer-game addiction or, conversely, to waste your money on expensive purchases that they will stay interested in for only a few days.
There's no doubt that technological toys - ranging from basic talk-back toys for pre-schoolers to complex computer games - help develop everything from puzzle-solving skills through to strategic and critical thinking. "They can help children learn leadership and planning skills, and even social skills," adds Kimberley Young, clinical director of the Center for Online Addiction in the US. But, she says, there's also no doubt that children can become addicted due to "clinical impulse control disorder" - in other words, an addiction in the same sense as compulsive gambling.
"I have so many parents call me, particularly about role-playing games," she says. The effects vary, but most children become withdrawn, while some also become aggressive and fall back in their school work.
Studies support her view, with one piece of research carried out by the National Institute on Media and the Family finding that addicted adolescents were significantly more likely to report having been in a fight in the past year and were also much more likely to argue with friends, be hostile generally and have lower academic grades.
Such is the problem in the Netherlands that an addiction treatment centre has set up a specific approach to helping youngsters detox from computer games. Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants, says he created the programme in response to the growing problem, particularly among young men and boys.
"The more we looked at it, the more we saw gaming was taking over the lives of kids," he says.
So what makes these games so addictive? The fact that they're so compelling, with increasing complexity, is certainly significant.
Some studies even suggest that the excitement of computer games causes the brain to release a chemical that is, in essence, addictive.
Young adds that it's no coincidence that the children who suffer the most have low self-esteem: "They use the game to fill missing needs. For instance, a child who is failing at school and has few friends can go online to become a great warrior. They feel lost in real life but online they feel good about themselves, have friends and are respected. They retreat more and more into the game."
Solving the problem at this late stage is no mean feat, not least because the obvious answer - removing the computer game or even the computer - can lead to the child becoming angry, disobedient and defensive, says Young. In any case, computers have become such an important part of everyday life that simply cutting out computers from your child's life could have a detrimental effect on, say, their homework. It's also hard for parents to show their child they're in trouble. "Nobody's ever been put in jail for being under the influence of a game," points out Bakker.
The good news is that it needn't come to this and even parents of very young children can do their bit, not only in preventing computer game addiction later down the line, but in avoiding the opposite problem of putting children off technology altogether by giving them an uninspiring introduction to the world of computers.
Think carefully about the interactive element of any technological toy you buy, advises Alison Quill, the founder of the educational toy providers www. …