By Keiko Kosaka
Video games are wildly popular among children these days. With the widespread diffusion of handheld devices, it is not uncommon to see children quietly playing video games by themselves despite being outside at a park.
Many parents and other adults who see children playing video games without uttering a word feel uncomfortable that so much attention is directed at them.
In June and July, when The Yomiuri Shimbun carried a series of articles featuring the effects of video games on children in our lifestyle news pages, we received more than 150 letters from readers who said they were worried about their children being addicted to video games. Reading the letters, I realized that video games can present parents with serious problems.
In a survey conducted last summer by Goo Research via its Website for primary school students, about 80 per cent of respondents who were primary school students said they played video games.
Among the respondents, 30 per cent of boys said they played for more than three hours a day.
According to the survey, while some families had rules for playing video games, including a limit on the amount of time spent playing, 35 per cent of families had no special rules.
The survey also indicated that the age of players is getting lower.
According to an ongoing study being conducted by the health, labor and welfare ministry for children born in 2001, 15 per cent of the children were playing games by the time they were 3 years old. The rate rose to 28 per cent by the age of 4, and 51 per cent by the age of 5!
The widespread use of video games has created a situation in which children who do not have a gaming device can become left out or ostracised by their friends. This can make it very difficult for parents who have adopted a policy of not buying gaming devices for their children to maintain their stance.
Many parents who have bought gaming devices for their children are worried that the playing of games has created various problems for their children.
The correspondence we received from readers illustrated the kinds of unusual behaviour that demonstrate an excessive interest in video games.
Examples include a kindergartner who would rather wet his pants and continue playing a game than go to the bathroom and a primary school student who continually kicks a ball around while playing a video game on a handheld device.
Some neurologists and parenting experts are also concerned about the possible harmful effects of playing video games.
The biggest concern is the influence on children's brains, but scientists have yet to produce any evidence of a detrimental effect on the brain.
Commenting on the matter, Shu Watanabe, a professor of health science at Tokyo Metropolitan University who is well versed in the functioning of the brain, said: "We can't be certain that devoting hours of time to playing games doesn't have a bad influence on (children's) brains at an important time in their development. Children generally find that no matter how tired their brains get, they can't stop playing because it's fun."
Watanabe added, "Even if children are allowed to play games, it's necessary for parents to limit the time spent playing them."
Child welfare specialist Fumiharu Yamagata, a professor at Osaka City University is also worried about possible adverse effects.
"Children may become less competent at building personal relationships with others if they spend too much time just playing video games," Yamagata said.
When children play together, they have to learn how to communicate with one another to sort out what they are going to do, how they are going to play, what rules they are going to use and so on.
When it comes to video games, however, they only need to switch on their gaming devices and they can start playing immediately without having to worry about dealing with other people.
"These days it's not unusual for children only to communicate when it suits them and for them not to know how to verbally approach others they want to play with [in the real world]," Yamagata said, expressing deep concern over the matter.
Even experts involved in the video game industry warn against the potentially harmful effects of the games.
"When playing video games, children can only play in a world that has been provided for them by the creators of the games," said Ritsumeikan University professor Akihiro Saito, a game media specialist and a developer of popular video games.
"This may make it difficult for them to develop creativity and the ability to think independently. I want parents to find time to take their children out to play in the real world," he added.
In many regions, children are still on summer vacation. Some parents let their children play games all day because it keeps them quiet and means less effort has to be made to look after them.
But if your children seem to be too wrapped up in playing video games hour after hour, maybe it is time to reconsider together with your children your gaming ground rules for the sake of their healthy development.