Are video games harmful for children?

Well, it depends…

The scientific literature abounds with studies claiming to have discovered evidence one way or the other.  This often contradictory information can be confusing, but some themes seem to be consistent, and more importantly, to make sense.

For example, there is some correlational evidence that violence in video games may increase aggression in certain vulnerable kids.  We believe that kids with excessive anger are attracted to violent games.  For these kids, violent games may teach unhealthy conflict resolution skills, glorify aberrant or subversive lifestyles, or desensitize kids to terrible events.  Parents should be particularly concerned if a child’s level of aggressive behavior is consistently higher after playing.

On the flipside, there is also evidence that playing video games can act as a healthy outlet for aggressive impulses. Kids who play video games often say that the games help them relax or cope with stress. Violent video games might offer an alternative outlet for aggressive and angry feelings by providing a vicarious, and less destructive, experience of testing limits.  In addition, gaming can build self-esteem, provide a sense of accomplishment, and improve socialization. It is unusual, for boys in particular, to not play video games.  The shared experience of overcoming certain gaming challenges acts to help some children bond.  Game play is often a normal social activity for boys, and lack of interest in social gaming may signal social difficulties.

So if all of this is true, how should parents manage video games in their child’s life? I believe that, for most children, a balanced approach is best.  Many kids can use video games in moderation as a healthy tool in their play toolbox.  Some children will need their parents to provide structure and moderation for them.  For these kids, it is best to make the limits very clear.  Parents may want to place a time limit on the game, or a contingency like “you may play for 1 hour after all of your homework and chores are done.”  I would also suggest that parents actually play video games with their child.  This provides many benefits, not the least of which is forging a stronger bond with your child.

You can also use the time to guide and mentor your child in his or her play.  Explain situations or themes that he or she may not understand, or might misinterpret.  Use the opportunity to discuss morals and values; parents often underestimate the impact of their words and actions on their child’s beliefs.  There are currently several games offering, as a central theme, the moral development of the main character (Fable, Infamous, etc).  Use these games as a launching point for discussions about morals.

Playing games with your child also affords you the benefit of a first hand look at the content of your child’s game.  Parents can also refer to each games rating from the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) for a rough guide to a game’s content.  Pay particularly attention to games rated “M” as these are intended for people age 17 and above.  Your game console, or computer, should have the ability to restrict certain types of games based on that game’s rating.

These suggestions are general, and should work well for most people.  For children with significant behavior or emotional problems, the decision to use or exclude video games should be made carefully with attention paid to the potential risks and benefits such a move would have.  Allowing the child to use video games, particularly violent games, may increase their aggression, while forbidding the use of their game could remove one of the child’s only sources of self-affirmation and competence.

Some parents have complained to me that their child seems “addicted to their video game”. They spend an excessive amount of time playing alone, and even ignore fun and engaging alternatives.  They may not even enjoy playing the game that much, instead they use it to escape from pain or conflict in their lives.  In many of these cases, the issue is not the video game itself, but rather the child’s inability to use alternate coping strategies to manage emotional or social problems.  If you suspect that your child is suffering from problems like these, I suggest seeking help from a professional in children’s mental health.

Stephen Morris, M.D.


Doctor Morris is an Adult, Child, and Adolescent Psychiatrist operating a private practice in Manhattan Beach, California.  For more information, please contact him through his website at