Moving to Learn

Video Games – Why are we knowingly letting children use an addictive substance?

Free Webinar June 7th, 4pm PST

Come join Cris Rowan, pediatric occupational therapist for a free one-hour webinar on June 7 at 4 pm PST where she will be talking about how to balance screen-based technologies with healthy activity. Cris will profile the 4 critical factors for optimizing child development, behavior and learning and provide a quick review of the impact of screens on 5 child developmental domains: physical, social, emotional, mental and cognitive.

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The recent release of the US Surgeon General’s report Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation cited both social media and video games as causal factors for the alarming rise in isolation, loneliness and mental illness. While tech industry pushback was to be expected, it was a surprise to see regulated mental health professionals openly joining an industry that is profiting from harming children. A recent podcast on NPR’s OPB All Things Considered on May 31, ‘2023 by Yuki Noguchi called The impact of video games on child development is often misunderstood1. was one-sided, misleading and potentially harmful. The pro-gaming information contained in this podcast was opinionated and not factual nor backed by any research yet alluded to be ‘expert’ testimony by a psychologist who profits from designing video games. Shouldn’t this be considered unethical?

Misinterpretation and misrepresentation of video game research can be extremely dangerous for children and youth and lead families down a dark hole of video game over usage that’s hard to reverse. In addition to lacking credible research, this NPR podcast neglects to provide comprehensive data on the impact of video games on children and does not offer expert guidance for parents regarding management of gaming duration and content. This article was written by a pediatric occupational therapist and intends to provide readers with balanced and research-referenced facts regarding the impact of video games on children and youth. This information will promote best practice management of video games by parents leading to the optimization of child health and safety. Author requests journalists consider referencing some (or all) of the following information in future articles to ensure readers receive accurate and balanced facts to make decisions regarding safe management of video game use by children and youth.

Video Games Cause Aggression

A meta-analysis of over 1000 video games in 20102 showed that violent video game exposure leads to an increase in aggressive attitude, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect, as well as a decrease in empathy and prosocial behavior. In 2002 (and again in 2013/15/16) the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released Policies on Children and Media3 stating NO screen exposure for 0-2 years, no more than one hour per day for 3-5 years and no more than 2 hours per day 6-12 years. In 2016 the AAP released its policy on violent media content Virtual Violence4 advising  pediatricians, parents, industry and policymakers regarding current video game research and recommendations. Regarding research findings, Virtual Violence states: “Summarizing the results of > 400 studies including violent media of all types, researchers found there was a significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiologic arousal”. AAP goes on to state “Another study performed a similar analysis focusing only on video games and based on 140 such studies, found slightly larger negative effect sizes. Some contend, rightly, that these correlations are in the small to moderate range, but they are stronger than the associations between passive smoking and lung cancer, and many municipalities have banned smoking because of that risk”. The Virtual Violence policy states that children under the age of 6 years should have NO exposure to violent media content and first-person shooter games should be restricted from children under the age of 12 years. In 2020 the American Psychological Association (APA) released the APA Resolution on Violent Video Games5 which states that “Scientific research and quantitative review of the violent video game literature have found a direct association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes including increased aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and  moral engagement.” APA goes on to state “Longitudinal studies lasting longer than 2 years have demonstrated that these effects persist over at least some time spans.” The APA recommends engagement in public education and awareness activities disseminating these findings to children, parents, teachers, judges and other professionals working with children in schools and communities.

Video Games Can Distort Reality

We’ve all seen children acting like characters recently viewed in cartoons, movies or video games. While these actions could be considered ‘normal’ and part of pretend play in early years, what is abnormal is when the child dissociates and becomes non-responsive to interactions with parents, teachers or other children. I have worked with numerous children in school settings who literally think they are a cartoon character or are ‘in’ a video game. These children are non-participatory, highly reactive, refuse to do school tasks and don’t socialize or interact with other students at great detriment to the classroom milieu. One kindergarten child sat silently at a table ‘playing’ a video game console, yet there was no console visible. When I ‘took’ the imaginary console away, this child exploded and told me he was going to “call the cops” and report me. I was referred to a grade 4 child who had previously thrown a rock at a passing truck breaking the window and when I asked why, this child told me there were “zombies” in the truck and he was “scared”. Early immersion in violent virtual content can create a condition I term ‘Gamer Brain’ when it appears as if the child’s brain has been consumed by gaming content. Another term adopted by researchers is Game Transfer Phenomena where the child adopts visual, auditory or character traits where they ‘see’, ‘hear’ and/or ‘feel’ the imagery of the video game. When asked if they are “in the game” now, children will respond by stating what they are seeing and experiencing visual and auditory imagery endemic in the game. These children are more likely to act out aggressively or violently as they mimic the characters in the video game. A 2014 study by Karolien Poels6 reports intensive video game playing, can cause elements from the game world to evoke thoughts and imagery outside the game world, influencing the perception and interpretation of stimuli in everyday life. Ortiz de Gortari in 20147 reported that overreactions, avoidances, and involuntary limb movements were all reported by many gamers in response to real-life stimuli as if they were still playing video games.

Video Games are an Addictive Substance

In 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized Gaming Disorder8 as a mental illness indicating that video games have the potential, if not used in moderation, to be addictive and harmful.

Gaming disorder is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by the following 4 traits which must be evident for at least 12 months:

  • Impaired control over gaming.
  • Increasing priority given to gaming over other activities.
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
  • Significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Why are we allowing children to use a substance that has proven to be addictive? We don’t allow children to use alcohol or drugs, or to smoke cigarettes because we understand that they don’t have the maturity to make good decisions regarding these substances. We also understand that children’s bodies and brains are growing and developing at a rapid pace, and we want them to have the best chance at a successful, healthy and happy adult life. Presently video games, social media and pornography are unregulated and unrestricted for children and youth, leaving them and their parents the ones making decisions as to how much, how often and what type of media they consume. Maybe this is not in our children’s best interest.

Video Games Cause Extreme Physiologic Arousal

When children are gaming their bodies are sedentary and their brains overstimulated. Developing bodies crave movement, yet video games entrance and hypnotize the brain into sitting still, often for very long periods. Sedentary bodies delay physical development and impair fitness, while also overstimulating the brain and heart, causing serious and often irreversible physical impairments. Psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley9 author of Reset Your Child’s Brain reports that when children play video games, their sympathetic nervous system goes into a hyper-aroused state of “flight or fight” characterized by adrenalin release from adrenal glands and dopamine production in the brain. Sustained high blood pressure and increased heart rate from prolonged gaming, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in later years. Hyperaroused states make it less possible for children to enjoy real-life human interactions as real life seems ‘slow’ and ‘boring’. The Raine ADHD Study10 in 2010 found that a child taking stimulant medication for ADHD who also plays video games, significantly increases the load on their hearts which can result in heart attacks. Causal factors for video game-induced hyperarousal are fast-paced and violent content, bright lights, rewards, multitasking, and interactivity. Long-term high adrenalin states can result in chronic adrenal fatigue, causally implicated in physical illnesses including heart attacks, cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Video Games Can Potentially Damage the Brain

Psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley in the Feb. 27, 2014 issue of Psychology Today article Grey Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain11 reports that multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas where “processing” occurs in internet/gaming addiction (Zhou 201112Yuan 2013,13 Weng 201314). A little neuroanatomy lesson helps to understand this process. To achieve functional efficiency during brain development, the brain prunes or cuts neuronal tracks to areas of the brain that are not being used. The frontal lobes of the brain are known for executive functions such as attention, memory, and impulse control which are critical for academic success. Because brains develop in conjunction with stimuli in the surrounding environment, the ‘type’ of media content consumed by high-screen users is key regarding brain pruning. Exposure to mindful or educational content results in active or constructive learning, which maintains and strengthens neuronal tracks to the frontal lobes. Whereas exposure to mindless or entertainment content such as fast-paced and violent video games, constitutes passive or destructive learning which rarely requires the use of frontal lobes, resulting in frontal lobe pruning. A 2022 research study13 demonstrated that video game disorders in adolescents may lead to adverse behavioural, affective and cognitive outcomes. While brain development has a degree of plasticity or ability to repair damage, over half of the brain is hard-wired at age 12 years and the brain is effectively hard-wired at age 25 years. Gentile, D14 found in 2011 that ~ 9% of gamers exhibited ‘pathological gaming’ and that the presence of pathological gaming was found to be a strong predictor of low academic performance. Regarding brain functional and structural changes associated with video games, Kuhn in 2019 reports15 that existing studies reveal evidence for the involvement of the hippocampal, prefrontal, and parietal brain regions; however, studies differ immensely, which makes a meta-analytic interpretation vulnerable. This area requires additional definitive research, but existing studies do indicate potential brain damage from excessive video gaming.

Video Games Can Cause Social Disorders

Rojas-Jara13 found in 2022 a correlational relationship between gaming disorder and an increase in difficulty with psychosocial relationships, social skills deficits, and increased prevalence of low self-esteem and mental health-related illness in adolescents. Rasmussen in a 2014 study16 showing video games result in a variety of social disorders and stated that while adolescents were aware of changes relating to excessive video game use such as changes in personality, mood, diet, sleep habits, and behaviour, they did not view them as problematic. Seok in 201817 reported study participants revealed serious symptoms of internet game addiction, which negatively affected their psychological health and self-identity. Participants also reported that they were aware of how video games negatively affected their daily lives and academic performance, and how their family relationships worsened once they became addicted to video games. Byeon in 2022 study18 reported that risky game users reported lower levels of happiness and satisfaction, as well as a significantly higher lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder, alcohol dependence, and suicidal ideation.

Video Games Contain Pornography, Gambling and Data Mining

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Sexual Health19 looked at 23722 video games from 1994 to 2013 and found that sexual content was present in 13% of the video games and that top-selling video games had 10.1% more sexual content across the period of study. Rebecca Collins in a 201720 research article reports that sexual content is highly prevalent in traditional media, and portrayals rarely depict the responsibilities and risks (e.g., condom use, pregnancy) associated with sexual activity. Gambling is endemic in video games with sports betting also growing in popularity, both of which are addictive. Ivoska’s study in 202221 surveyed grade 11-12 students who reported an increased incidence of problematic gambling in video games from 4.2% in 2018 to 8.3% in 2022. Ben Egliston wrote in Big Data and Society22 in 2022 that AI surveillance captures gamers actions and markets data for profit and that Epic, Electronic Arts and Activision explicitly state in licence agreements they capture user data. Egliston went on to state that even schools use gamification programs and apps to capture student data.

Video Games Overuse Lead to Teens Never Leaving Home

Chronic video game immersion does nothing to prepare children and teens for the rigours of work and social performance demanded by employers. Poor achievement of literacy, inability to problem solve, and inability to think critically and reason are huge detriments to sustainable employment. US Census Bureau23 reports in 2022 that more young adults are living with their parents now than at any other time in history (see figure 1) and Statistics Canada24 citing the same worrisome trend (see figure 2). What is surprising is that this situation appears acceptable and even preferable to many parents who have young adults living in their basement not working and not attending post-secondary school, who state to the author “At least I know where they are”. What are these youth and young people doing at home?

What Can You Do?
  1. Manage video game duration and content. Due to accumulating research showing a correlation between video game play and aggression and risk of harm to others, precaution is key for harm reduction. A 2012 study by Willoughby25 showed more violent video game play predicted higher levels of violence over Study by Saleem in 201226 showed that prosocial games reduce state hostility and increase positive state affect in college students while violent video games have the opposite effect. The chart below reflects current research and expert recommendations regarding video game duration and content and can be used by parents and teachers in the process of developing rules and policies. The author of this article strongly recommends video games not be allowed anywhere on school grounds due to compilation of detrimental effects on children and youth.
Technology Use Guidelines for Children and Youth

Created by Cris Rowan, creator of Reconnect Webinars and author of Virtual Child in conjunction with Dr. Andrew Doan, neuroscientist and author of Hooked on Games and Dr, Hilarie Cash, Director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program and author of Video Games and Your Kids, with contributions from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society.

2. Reduce Impact and Monitor Device Use. Playing video games on smaller screens and prohibiting use of virtual reality devices lessens the negative impacts of gaming. A 2013 study27 showed the realistic controller and large screen elicited higher hostility, presence, and excitement when playing violent video games than a standard mouse and small screen, Douglas Gentile reported in a 201428 study that parental monitoring of media has protective effects on a wide variety of academic, social, and physical child outcomes including body mass index, average weekly sleep, school performance, prosocial behavior, and aggressive behavior.

3. Get gaming devices out of bedrooms. Bedrooms are for sleep…period. When children and youth take screens into bedrooms, bathrooms and any unsupervised spaces, parents have no idea what they are viewing and who they are talking to. Study by Fu in 201729 found that the placement of electronic devices in child bedrooms is believed to negatively impact school readiness and the placement of game console was associated with lower social competence. The National Sleep Foundation30 in 2020 reports that over 60% of children and youth are chronically sleep deprived yet 75% are allowed screens in their bedrooms increasing their risk for obesity, diabetes, poor academic performance, risk-taking, depression, anxiety, heart problems, and even cancer. Children who come to school tired from being up at night gaming and/or using social media are moody, volatile, and completely unable to pay attention, memorize facts, or assimilate information to promote learning Hale 201831.

4. Go Outside and Play. Erasing the negative effects of screens can actually be this simple…go outside and play, yet many parents fear nature and their children, unfortunately, are kept inside. Walk through a neighborhood in the early evening or on the weekend and it’s rare to see children outside playing. Parents unfortunately think it’s safer to keep their children inside on screens, but forget when they are unsupervised and online are exposed to predators, cyberbullying, sexual and violent content, etc. Not only is playing outside good for children’s spirit, sociability and fitness, but a study by Singh in 201232 found that participation in physical activity also has a positive effect on children’s academic Study by Bravender in 202033 reports that children who play freely in the great outdoors are healthier in body and mind and active engagement with the natural environment reduces stress and relieves depression in all ages and goes onto recommends physicians prescribe outdoor play for children. Study by White in 201934 proved that spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature improves health and well-being and Norwood found in 2019 study35 that passive nature exposure promotes positive changes in attention, memory and mood, so why aren’t we adopting outdoor school concepts in every school district in North America?

5. Want to find out more? Consider taking the Reconnect Webinars – Technology Management 3-day webinar series and become certified in Balanced Technology Management. Too long? Check out the 3.5 hour parent condensed version. Have a teen who overuses screens? Show them Tech Talks for Teens webinar which contains the new Screenbuster online certification training program.

Research References
  1. NPR’s OPB All Things Considered by Yuki Noguchi The impact of video games on child development is often misunderstood. Retrieved from on May 31, ’23.
  2. Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N. 2010. Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychology Bulletin. 136(2);151-73.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2016. Policies on Children and Media. Retrieved from on May 31, ’23.
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2016. Virtual Violence. Retrieved from on May 31, ’23.
  5. American Psychological Association. 2020. APA Resolution on Violent Video Games. Retrieved from on May 31, ’23.
  6. Poels K, Ijsselsteijn WA, de Kort Y. 2014. World of Warcraft, the aftermath: how game elements transfer into perceptions, associations and (day)dreams in the everyday life of massively multiplayer online role-playing game players. New Media and 17(7);1137-1153.
  7. Ortiz de Gortari A, Griffiths M. 2014. Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behavior in game transfer phenomena: an empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 12(4);432-452.
  8. World Health Organization, ICD-11: International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (2019).
  9. Dunckley, V. 2015. Reset your child’s brain – a four-week plan to end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen New World Library, Novato.
  10. Reports and Publications. Children who use ADHD medication have lower academic performance and a higher risk of cardiac problems, according to the Department of Health. Government of Western Australia, 2010.
  11. Dunckley, V. Feb. 27, 2014. Grey Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from on May 31, 2023.
  12. Zhou Y, Lin FC, Du YS, et 2011. Gray matter abnormalities in internet addiction: a voxel-based morphometry study. European Journal of Radiology. 79(1);92–95.
  13. Rojas-Jara, C., Polanco-Carrasco, R., Navarro-Castillo, R., Faúndez-Castillo, F., & Chamorro-Gallardo, M. (2022). Game (not) Over: A Systematic Review of Video Game Disorder in Adolescents. Revista Colombiana de Psicología, 31(2), 45-64.
  14. Gentile DA, Choo H, Liau A, Sim BWT, Li D, Fung D, Khoo A. 2011. Pathological video game use among youths: A two-year longitudinal study. Pediatrics127(2).
  15. Kuhn S. 2019. Effects of computer gaming on cognition, brain structure and function: a critical reflection on existing literature. Dialogues on Clinical Neuroscience. Sep;21(3):319-330.
  16. Rasmussen, M., Meilstrup, C., Bendtsen, P., Pedersen, T., Nielsen, L., Madsen, K., & Holstein, B. (2014). Perceived problems with computer gaming and internet use are associated with poorer social relations in adolescence. International Journal of Public Health, 60(2), 179–188.
  17. Seok, H. J., Lee, J. M., Park, C.-Y., & Park, J. Y. (2018). Understanding internet gaming addiction among South Korean adolescents through photovoice. Children and Youth Services Review, 94, 35–42.
  18. Byeon G, Park JE, Jeon HJ, et al. 2022. Associations between game use and mental health in early adulthood: A nationwide study in Korea. Journal of Affective Disorders. 297;579-585.
  19. Vidana-Perez D, Braverman-Bronstein A et. Al. 2018. Sexual content in video games: An analysis of the Entertainment Software Rating Board classification. Sexual Health. 15(3).
  20. Collins RL, Strasburger VC et. 2017. Sexual Media and Childhood Well-being and Health. Pediatrics. 140:S162-S166.
  21. Marchica LA, Richard J, Nower L, Ivoska W, Derevensky JL. 2022. Problem video gaming in adolescents: An examination of the Pathways Model. International Gambling Studies. Vol. 22, issue 2, 282-299.
  22. Egliston B. 2022. The interface of the future’: Mixed reality, intimate data and imagined temporalities. Big Data and Society. Feb. 24, 2022.
  23. US Census Bureau – 1975 and 2016 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Retrieved from On May 31, 2023.
  24. Statistics Canada – Census of Population 1981 – 2011. Retrieved from On May 31, 2023.
  25. Willoughby T, Adachi PJ, Good M. 2012. A longitudinal study of the association between violent video game play and aggression among adolescents. Developmental Psychology. 48(4);1044-1057.
  26. Saleem M, Anderson CA, Gentile DA. et al. 2012. Effects of prosocial, neutral, and violent video games on college students’ affect. Aggressive Behaviour. 38(4);263-271.
  27. Kim KJ, Sundar SS. 2013. Can interface features affect aggression resulting from violent video game play? An examination of realistic controller and large screen size. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 16(5);329-
  28. Gentile D, Reimer RA, Nathanson A, et al. 2014. Protective effects of parental monitoring of children’s media use. JAMA Pediatr. 168(5);479-84.
  29. Fu K, Ho FKW, Rao N, Jiang F, Li SL, Lee TM, Chan SH, Yung AW, Young ME. 2017. Parental restriction reduces the harmful effects of in-bedroom electronic devices. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 102(12), 1125–1131.
  30. National Sleep Foundation. 2020. Retrieved from
  31. Hale L, Kirschen GW, LeBourgeois MK, et al. 2018. Youth screen media habits and sleep: sleep-friendly screen behavior recommendations for clinicians, educators and parents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 27;229-
  32. Singh A, Uijtdewilligen L, Twisk JWR, et al. 2012. Physical activity and performance at school: A systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 166(1);49–55.
  33. Bravender LS. 2020. Nature play: A prescription for healthier children. Contemporary Pediatrics. 37(3), 12-22.
  34. White MP, Alcock I, Grellier J, et al. 2019. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and Scientific Reports, 9(7730);1-11.
  35. Norwood MF, Lakhani A et. al. 2019. A narrative and systematic review of the behavioural, cognitive and emotional effects of passive nature exposure on young people: Evidence for prescribing change. Landscape and Urban Planning. 189, 71-79.


Cris Rowen

Cris Rowan, BScOT, BScBi, SIPT

Cris Rowan is a biologist, pediatric occupational therapist and sensory specialist with expertise in the impact of technology on child development, behaviour and learning. Having worked in school settings for over 3 decades, Cris is committed to improving student health while also easing the job of learning for children. Cris is a well-known international speaker and author to teachers, parents and therapists globally on topics of sensory integration, learning, attention, fine motor skills and the impact of media content including video games, social media and pornography on children’s brain and body development. Cris has a BSc’s both in Occupational Therapy and in Biology, is a SIPT certified sensory specialist, and has Approved Provider Status for CEU provision with the American Occupational Therapy Association. Over the past 3 decades, Cris has provided over 350 keynotes and workshops, writes monthly articles for her blog Moving to Learn, publishes the monthly Child Development Series Newsletter, and is designer and creator of Reconnect Webinars which offer research evidenced information for teens, parents, teachers and clinicians to manage balanced between screens and healthy activities. Cris is member of the Screens in Schools committee with Fairplay for Kids, member of the Institute for Digital Media and Child Development and sits on the Board of Directors for the Global Alliance for Brain and Heart Health. Cris has two adult children, Matt and Katie who grew up without screens.

Cris can be reached at Reconnect Webinars offers a free, 5.5-hour CCAP accredited Screenbuster Program training webinar for teens which qualifies them to perform Tech Talks for their peers. The Screenbuster Program requires one counsellor, teacher or principal to complete the 3-day Balanced Technology Management certification CEU provided course in order to adequately supervise the teens.

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