Video games are a prevalent and profitable facet of the modern media entertainment industry. Although children (anyone under the age of 18) comprise only 31 percent of the $10 billion US video game market, their numbers are increasing. Whereas in the 1990s, only 60 percent of middle-school-aged children reported playing video games on a consistent basis, a 2001 study by the National Institute on Media and the Family reported over 92 percent of US children played video games, an increase of over 30 percent. Worldwide, the video game industry is expected to grow to over $46.5 billion by the year 2010, with a growing portion of this market comprised of children.
Video games have been found to have both positive and negative effects on children, from increased academic test scores to increased aggression levels, but these mixed results, coupled with the increased popularity of video games carrying an “M” rating (for mature audiences only), have media researchers asking the question, “what effects are video games having on the development of today’s youth?”
Game Use During Childhood
Several studies have found significant variation in video game play based on age and developmental stage. For example, children in the sensorimotor stage (age birth to two years) are just beginning to learn about concrete objects in their environment and cannot process symbolic information; consequently, studies on US children show that less than three percent play video games at this age. In the most recent study of media use among the very young (ages zero to six), video game play was found to be the least common recreational activity. Whereas over three quarters of young children play outside, read, or listen to music on a typical day, less than 10 percent of these children play video games. This play is severely limited: several studies report that young children play video games for less than six minutes per day, despite three quarters of them having a computer and around half of them having a game system in their home.
As children get older, their game play increases until it peaks in the preteen and early teen years. By ages 4 to 6 years – the middle of the pre-operational stage of development – over half of US children have been exposed to video games, and 16 percent report regular video game play; as children enter the concrete and formal operations stages, their game play increases significantly. A study of US school children reports that fifth-graders (children aged 11 years) play an average of 1.81 hours per day, and eighth-graders (children aged 14 years) play 2.46 hours per day. These numbers drop off at the eleventh grade (children aged 16 years) to 1.62 hours daily, and for young adults (aged 18 to 22 years), 1.73 hours daily.
Interestingly, a US Kaiser Family Foundation survey (Roberts et al. 1999) found that, when non-gamers are removed from survey data, video game play figures are similar across developmental stages. For example, 16 percent of children aged 2 to 7 years who play video games consistently (as defined by having played the day before the survey administration) play nearly 50 minutes daily. This compares to 45 percent of 8 to 13 year-olds who were daily players (at 1 hour and 9 minutes per day), and 30 percent of 14 to 18-year-olds who were daily players (at 1 hour and 5 minutes per day). However, there are some methodological issues that make interpretation of these results difficult. For example, the Kaiser Family Foundation survey questioned parents about child game use, while the other surveys reported on child responses. Often, there are sizable differences in reported playing time based on who fills out the survey, parent or child.
Gender Differences in Gaming
Patterns of gender differences in video game play appear fairly early in development. One study found that US boys averaged 1.5 hours more game play per day than girls across all developmental stages. Another study found that US boys from 8 to 13 years of age averaged 47 minutes of game play per day as compared to only 16 minutes per day for girls of that same age. The difference stays the same among 14to 18-year-olds, with boys (34 minutes) playing significantly longer per day than girls (7 minutes). In a recent meta-analysis of 90 media use studies, Marshall et al. (2006) estimated that US girls aged 7 to 10 years spend around 30 minutes per day playing video games, while boys of the same age spend more than twice as much time – nearly 71 minutes per day on average – playing video games. These numbers dropped off slightly with age, but the patterns remained the same: older boys (aged 13 to 18) reported playing 60 minutes each day, while older girls played less than 30 minutes. Studies with British youth reported similar patterns.
Clear differences in genre preferences between boys and girls also exist. The results of four different studies on video game preference of US children are consistent: boys prefer action, fighting, shooting, adventure, and sports games, while girls prefer platform, puzzle, and educational games. These gender differences in game preference are observed as early as 10 years of age. One survey reported that children endorsed statements containing game gender stereotypes and showed clarity on which types of games are “boy games” or “girl games”. British youth show a similar pattern of game preference by gender. Interestingly, Japanese youth – while showing similar patterns – reported playing fewer violent video games overall. Game sales reflect this trend, as violent video games rarely (if ever) top Japanese video game sales charts, whereas they frequently top the sales charts in the US and the UK.
Gender differences in game preferences have been attributed to differences in cognitive skills between boys and girls. Whereas girls have significantly better verbal abilities and tend to like puzzle games, boys tend to have greater capacities for targeting and mental rotational ability, and prefer games that utilize these skills.
Video Game Uses and Gratifications
Part of the reason why we see differences in amount of game use by age may be because uses and gratifications derived from game play also vary by developmental stage. Studies on US children show that, although competition and challenge are the highest rated reasons for playing video games across all age groups and genders, older teens (aged 16 years) and young adults (aged 20 years) primarily play video games as a means of social interaction with friends and as a way to get away from stress. Among 14-year-olds, game play is primarily a stress release, a cognitive challenge, and a means of social interaction. For 10-year-olds, their reasons are different. Although these children enjoy playing against friends and as a cognitive challenge against themselves, they also play for the fantastical desire to be a strong character.
It appears that games begin as exercises in mastery for younger children (as an intellectual challenge and as an expression of power fantasy), but become more of a social event as children progress through adolescence and into young adulthood. Studies of Japanese and British youth (aged 12 to 14 years), for example, report that companionship and preference for friends are often cited as motivations for video game play; similar results are found when looking at US children of comparable age.
Video Game Consequences
Scholars have found evidence of positive and negative effects on childhood development associated with video game play. One longitudinal study found that the young children (aged 4 and 5 years) who were exposed to developmentally appropriate software had increased intelligence scores, nonverbal skills, dexterity, and long-term memory, while children exposed to developmentally inappropriate software showed decreased creativity levels. Because the pre-operational stage is characterized by a child’s understanding of physical space over abstract thought, video games that focus specifically on shapes and structures are most useful as educational and entertainment media for these children. Research on 7and 8-year-olds – children in the pre-operational stage of development – found that children who played video games had better hand–eye coordination and reaction time than children who did not, and Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (1994) found that video game play could significantly increase spatial skills in 10-year-olds.
Children at the later stages of development are able to comprehend and play nearly all video games available. This is an area of concern for some scholars due to the content of the more popular video games. As of the end of 2006, the three top-selling video games in the US were all “M” rated; combined, these games have sold over 17 million copies. A meta-analysis by Anderson and Bushman (2001) suggests that, although children are not as susceptible to short-term effects of media violence as adults are, they are significantly more influenced in the long term. These findings suggest that exposure to video game violence teaches children antisocial norms and schemas, although they have been debated due to small effect sizes and lack of causality (Sherry 2001). In terms of academic growth and performance, studies have been inconclusive. One study, using eighth-grade students, found that the poorest performing students were typically the heaviest users of video games, while another study found no effect of game play – positive or negative – on classroom performance.
While there have been several studies examining patterns of children’s video game usage and preference, existing research does not compare effects across ages or cognitive stages. Therefore, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the effects of video game play on childhood development. Research has been conducted with children on such diverse topics as learning from games, physiological reactance to games, and the role of personality in game use, but future research in these areas will be necessary to understand the role of gaming in child development beyond simple descriptions of game use and preferences.
- Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A metaanalytic review. Psychological Science, 12, 353 –359.
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- Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., Rideout, V. J., & Brodie, M. (1999). Kids and media at the new millennium: A comprehensive national analysis of children’s media use. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. At https://www.kff.org/hivaids/report/kids-media-the-new-millennium/.
- Sherry, J. L. (2001). The effects of violent video games on aggression. Human Communication Research, 27, 409 – 431.
- Subrahmanyam, K., & Greenfield, P. M. (1994). Effect of video game practice on spatial skills in girls and boys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15, 13 –32.
- Vorderer, P., & Bryant, J. (eds.) (2006). Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Walsh, D., Gentile, D., Walsh, E., & Bennett, N. (2006). Eleventh annual MediaWise video game report card. National Institute on Media and the Family. At http://research.vuse.vanderbilt.edu/srdesign/2006/group27/documents/2006_Video_Game_Report_Card.pdf.
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