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How Gaming Changes Brain Chemistry

When it comes to video games, Donna Volpitta’s fifth grade son is like many boys his age. If kids aren’t coming over to his house to play video games, he’s going to their homes or he’s joining them to play online. “Just like phones are not evil, video games are not evil. [Digital media] is part of our kids’ world and their social life,” says Volpitta, Ed.D., who is also mom to three other children ages 12, 14, and 16, and the author of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive Not Reactive Parenting. “But it’s important to teach [our kids] mindful use and what video games do to your brain,” she adds.

Why a healthy balance matters

Balancing your kids’ electronics-use with both organized activities and unstructured free time to dream and engage in creative pursuits not only helps them become more conscientious users of technology, but also supports healthy brain development. Too much screen time starves the cortex of the brain, which is in charge of long-term decision-making, and overfeeds the limbic system, which is the emotional fight-or-flight part of the brain. Over time, this wires the brain for a short attention span, impulsive behavior, and an inability to pick up on social cues. While video gaming can provide a positive way for peers to connect and enhance skills like hand- eye coordination and problem-solving, it doesn’t help kids build resilience in the same way that solving a more complex problem can.

Suppose your child is trying to assemble a paper airplane that flies across the room instead of nosediving the minute it hits the air. Your child looks up ideas online, tries different techniques, folds, refolds, experiments, and tries again. With a pile of frustrated attempts balled up around them, they finally experience the sweet thrill of success as they toss their paper plane into the air and watch it glide gracefully across the room.

When we pursue and achieve a hard-won goal, the brain is flooded with dopamine, the reward neurochemical, and serotonin, the self-confidence neurochemical. Furthermore, our persistence and creative problem-solving builds self-esteem and resilience, a skill that will be invaluable as problems crop up throughout life.

“It’s not that video games don’t offer some level of persistence, but there’s a very straight and narrow path toward that next goal,” says Volpitta. Unlike more complicated projects that delay gratification, video games offer users short bursts of reward chemicals that often leave the player wanting more. “It’s almost like having a chocolate chip as opposed to a Hershey bar,” explains Volpitta. The desire for more quick, pleasurable hits of dopamine and serotonin and unlimited access to gaming ultimately primes the brain for addiction.

Choose games wisely

Just as wholesome foods nourish your body, the content we feed the brain influences how we respond to the world. “Continued and excessive exposure to violence puts the child into a reality where violence is an acceptable way of solving different problems,” says paediatrician Raun Melmed, MD, and author of the children’s book Timmy’s Monster Diary: Screen Time Stress. “Kids who are exposed to violence are more anxious, more fearful, and very likely, more prone to violence.”

Hilary Cash, Ph.D., agrees. She is the chief clinical officer of reSTART Life, an Internet and digital technology addiction residential treatment program for adolescents and young adults. She notes research indicating that
the levels of empathy among university students has dropped by nearly 40 percent in recent years. “A lot of that is attributed to video games and the antisocial environment of the Internet. People are becoming inured to antisocial behavior and not developing the good emotional and social intelligence needed to promote empathy,” says Cash.

Research games your child wants to play before you buy the video games, and play or watch them together. Seek prosocial games and those that encourage creative problem-solving. For ratings and reviews of video games, check out

Establish a media plan

Dr. Melmed suggests coming up with a media plan as a family, outlining rules that both parents and kids agree to follow. For example, consider how much video game time is appropriate each day and when electronics will be powered down each evening to ensure a good night’s sleep. For her family, Volpitta doesn’t allow screen time behind closed doors and limits video games to one hour a day once homework and chores are complete. Or you might decide to have a digital free day once a week or ban electronic devices in the car or during mealtime. “Then you have to make sure mealtime is an interesting time as well - a time for sharing and time for interacting,” advises Melmed.

As a parent, by creating realistic limits and understanding how video games impact the brain, you will feel more in control despite the rapidly changing digital landscape. While your kids probably won’t express appreciation for vigilance, they will feel safer, too. “The brain needs to feel safe and it feels safe with those limits, knowing that somebody is in control,” says Volpitta. “When we’re afraid of setting those limits - when we’re afraid of technology - it actually makes their brains
feel unsafe.”

Signs of trouble

Gaming becomes problematic if it is all your child seems to think or talk about, and if they exhibit agitation or anger when you try to set limits. “The similarities between kids who play too many video games for long periods of time and those who are addicted to anything else, from drugs or alcohol or cigarettes, is equivalent,” says Melmed.

Signs of gaming abuse and addiction include:

Digital media use for extended periods of tim

Problems with school work

Trouble sleeping or sleepiness

Physically overweight or underweight

Infrequent face-to-face interactions with peers

Depression, anxiety, or anger

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Christa is a nationally-published freelance writer. As the mother of two adolescent sons who love video gaming, she understands the challenges and the importance of striking a healthy balance. She is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.


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