We live in a computer age, and both adults and children spend a great deal of time each day in front of a computer screen. There is ongoing debate around the advantages and disadvantages of children spending endless hours playing computer games. Are they the curse many perceive them to be, or can they actually be beneficial in certain areas of development? There are two sides to this controversial coin!

While the educational value of computers, and particularly the Internet, cannot be undermined, with its easy access to information, the focus of this article is the recreational aspect of computer games.

One of the most important advantages of computer games is that children become familiar and comfortable with technology from a young age. Regardless of what the child is doing on the computer, he is navigating and finding his way around it, developing confidence, and eliminating the apprehension and even fear many older people feel around computers.

Critics of computer games express concern regarding the sedentary unhealthy indoor lifestyle that results from children spending too much time sitting at the computer. Surely, the responsibility for this lies not with computers, but with parents or care givers who should help children balance computer time with time outdoors playing active games?

The argument goes further and questions a child’s social development if he is constantly on his own interacting with a computer screen. The opposite argument is that many computer games involve interaction between children playing a particular game, albeit via their individual computers. Children communicate by sharing skills and information to solve problems and resolve issues that occur in the game. Some research has shown that some computer games are an outlet for frustration and stress, and help children learn to cope with certain emotions which may be difficult for them in a social setting. “You can start over if you are losing”. Does this comment by a child strengthen his need to always be a winner, or does it reflect his ability to deal with the frustration of losing?

Do the sophisticated animation and graphics in computer games develop or inhibit the child’s own imagination? There are opposing arguments for this, too, the negative view being that the child does not need to delve into his own imagination when he is confronted by exciting computer-generated images. On the other hand, exposure to these images may help to stimulate the child to create his own exciting virtual world.

Our world is highly visual, and children need to develop a variety of visual skills to function effectively within it. Computer games are an entertaining and enjoyable way for children to improve visual attention and memory, fast reaction times to visual stimuli, and hand-eye co-ordination, among others. However, listening skills are essential, too, and computer games seldom allow opportunities for auditory development.

With the range of computer games available, there is something to cater for every child’s interests and ability. However, they are expensive and become out-dated quickly, and children feel the need to constantly keep up with their peers and acquire the latest games, which could create family conflict.

The strongest criticism against computer games is that they dominate children’s time, taking attention away from homework, sport and social activities.

What can parents do to help their children balance their time better?

Computer games, like television, should not be used as a baby-sitter! Children should not sit in front of the computer mindlessly for hours on end.

Discuss with your child how much time should be spent playing computer games, and what other activities need to be included in his day. The amount of time should be in relation to the age of the child and his daily routine. For older children who do research or homework on the computer, this needs to be excluded from playing computer games.

If more than one child is using one computer, convenient times for each need to be negotiated.

“With no schedule, the computer turns from friend to enemy”, remarked one psychologist. A regular schedule should be set, and consequences agreed on if the child does not stick to this.

One child is quoted as saying that “computer games give you a chance to do something that is impossible in real life”. Is it a blessing that he can play out his fantasies in a virtual world? Or is it a curse that he is so dependent on computer games?