Q: My 3-year-old has been watching his 9 and 11-year-old brothers playing video games, and he wants to start playing games too. I know that there are games out there for kids his age, but is 3 too young for him to start?
A: There are many video games available for three-year-olds, including one by Fisher Price that has tots pedal a miniature stationary bike to work the game. But I would advise delaying having your son play video games for at least another year. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children under three should not spend any time in front of the "screen" (TV or video games), although that may be a bit unrealistic. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that half of all four to six-year-olds play video games, and about 25% play several times a week.
As with all children, the real question is: How much time playing video and computer games are we talking about? Beginning at four, children may find some video games entertaining and educational, but they should really be spending their time in more active and imaginative play. Time spent playing video games becomes much more of a problem beginning at five or six, when there is a significant push to get kids on Internet sites like WebKinz, and many more commercial games are available for the various video consoles. And things do not get better. In the 'tween years, many kids add instant messaging and social networking sites to their repertoire of time-consuming sedentary interests.
An article in the NY Times, "Moving Beyond Joysticks, and Off the Couch," by Tara Parker-Pope, asks a new question: Are active video games like the WII system better for kids than traditional sit-on-the-couch games ? The articles quotes several studies suggesting that active games that require kids to dance or use body movements to control the action on the screen may burn as many calories as walking on a treadmill.
But while games that require kids to get off their bottoms are probably better than sedentary games, this is only a slight improvement. Clearly, being outside on a bike or skiing or playing tennis in the fresh air, with real people, is preferable than doing these activities in a virtual world.
As with so many issues in child-rearing, the best answer involves certain use of the "L" word. No, I'm not talking about love; the "L" word I'm referring to is limits.
Parents need to determine a limit for their children to be in front of the screen (TV, video games, computers) for each child, and do not exceed it. My recommendations would be: one-half hour or less a day for children ages 3-5, one hour a day or less for children ages 6-12, two hours a day for teens (which hopefully would include using the computer for educational purposes ). Of course setting limits is one thing, and getting kids to do things like chores, reading, or sports is another. Responsible parents need to work at both limiting questionable habits and supporting habits which lead to physical and mental health. When it comes to video games other gadgets and gizmos, the sooner you teach good technology habits, the better.