Aiden Schwartz and Jonah Beinart, both sixth-graders at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, have Nintendo Wii consoles at home. And they’ll play the occasional online game. But their favorite video game console?
Jonah has gotten into Galaxy of Heroes, a mobile Star Wars role-playing game. Aiden is a big Words with Friends fan. For online games, they both also like Minecraft, the long-popular game in which players explore the game world and build in it without storylines to follow.
“[Video games] don’t limit you to reality,” Aiden says. In the video game world, anything is possible.
While Aiden and Jonah say they play word-based games with their parents, they are what Bethesda-based child psychologist Adam Pletter calls “digital natives,” those for whom navigating the virtual world is as natural as breathing air. Their parents, on the other hand, are “digital immigrants,” and it’s a challenge for them to keep tabs on technology they don’t quite understand.
“Parents being way behind most kids. It’s a major glitch in parenting,” Pletter says. “This is a very unique historical position that we’re in.”
But whether the digital revolution is good or bad depends on who you talk to. Aiden and Jonah have directed their enthusiasm for video games into school work. Digital technology fits neatly into STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education. Both took an elective called Video Game Design. Jonah really likes coding. And Aiden combined his passions for art and science by making his own video games.
“I like that some games are educational,” says Jonah. “Like they relieve boredom and teach you something at the same time.”
But even if a game isn’t explicitly educational, both Aiden and Jonah feel like they’ve learned some valuable skills.
Games can teach you to focus, Jonah says, because you’re concentrating on one thing for an extended period — just like you have to do at school.
Aiden says they help him to think quickly and respond to what’s happening around him.
Robbye Fox, a certified parent educator with Kensington nonprofit Parent Encouragement Program, says the social nature of gaming can be beneficial to kids. And some games, like Minecraft, can engage children’s creative and problem-solving sides.
“Not all tech is the same,” Fox says. “Things like Minecraft, where they’re learning problem-solving and some creativity, or when they might be sitting at home but playing with a friend in another neighborhood or town or country, they can engage in those things. But it’s all about balance.”
And that balance is largely up to the parents. Fox regularly meets parents who are concerned about the amount of time a child spends gaming. But, she says, parents need to remember that the pull of games on a young brain is strong.
“These things are designed to be addictive,” Fox says. “That’s the intended effect. And as parents, we have to try to monitor what they’re exposed to. You don’t want to introduce violent or inappropriate games at a young age.”
Fox advises against reward systems by which a child is allowed additional game time in return for good behavior. Instead, parents should try to get their child to understand the value in schoolwork and positive social interactions.
“We don’t want to give them that extrinsic motivation to do things,” Fox says. “We want them to become intrinsically motivated to do their school work and other things.”
Both Jonah and Aiden say their parents have expectations about how much screen time they get. Aiden says it’s usually about two hours a day. For Jonah, there’s not a set amount of time, just “not too much.”
When he gets home from school? It’s always homework first.