Ehren Oertell was the envy of his peers. With a mother who worked for a games division of Sony, he got his hands on all the new electronic toys before they hit the stores. He hadn't even entered the double digits when his game collection reached the triple digits. And, best of all, he was often asked to try out games and report on them to the research folks at his mom's company.
Dana Oertell was pleased with these perks. That is, until she noticed her son was getting just a bit too caught up with his PlayStation. As an industry insider, she was savvy about how game designers try to lure children back again and again.
"A good game," she says, "drives the player back for more action or strategy-filled entertainment. It's not so much the violence in some of these games that is addictive, but it's the goal of getting to the end and what it takes to get there."
Ms. Oertell knew enough to set limits before Ehren's interest grew to obsession. She let him play for short periods of time and only after all his homework and chores were done. She learned as much as she could about the games, and she stuck closely to their ratings, making sure he played only those that were age-appropriate. But most of all, she says, she encouraged him to broaden his interests.
Now Ehren is 16, and he would rather play basketball, soccer, ice hockey, or water polo than click a mouse or drive a joystick. He not only survived but thrived at summer camp, where electronics were taboo. And he's now attending a private school where electronic games are off-limits until schoolwork is done, and he's just fine with that.
Of course, not every parent is privy to the strategies of game designers - and not every child has more electronic games than he can count. But a record 39 percent of families own at least one electronic game, according to a recent survey by the University of Pennsylvania, and that number is growing fast.
Many of today's parents can relate to Oertell's concerns. They may not be quite as sure how to strike a balance with game playing and unplugged pursuits. Some even go so far as to worry that their children are "addicted."
Boys are drawn to games
Interestingly, most parents who responded to an online inquiry for this article have sons.
Neal Linkon, for example, has three, all of whom are keenly interested in electronic games. "It's a boy thing, without question," said Mr. Linkon when reached by telephone. "Girls are into 'Neopets,' and that's about it. Boys like the role-playing, shoot-'em-ups, explosions, sports, and racing."
His 14-year-old, Adam, the most avid player in the family, would add that "the challenge" makes the games appealing. "There is also something else," he adds, "but it's hard to explain. It's like trying to explain why something tastes good."
Author Michael Thompson, in his book "Speaking of Boys," explains that electronic games "appeal to a boy's sense of mastery and play to his strengths of persistence, hand-eye coordination, hyperfocus, competition, and task-orientation in achieving various levels and goals."
Mr. Thompson, who counsels boys at a private school outside Boston, says he doesn't worry about this pastime unless boys use the devices to tune out and avoid human contact or fresh air and exercise.
Adam Linkon hasn't reached this point, but nonetheless, his father is increasingly frustrated. To illustrate the level of Adam's interest, he tells how Adam will often answer the telephone while playing a game, hang up, and instantly forget who called.
But the most difficult dilemma now is when dinner's ready and Adam is in the midst of playing an Internet game with online friends. "He hates to stop. It's like playing basketball with a team, and suddenly one kid has to leave. He feels like he's letting everyone down."
Monica Salvo, also the parent of three sons, bought her boys, ages 12, 8, and 4, their first electronic game a year ago. "I fell victim to their own peer pressure," she says, explaining that her oldest boy, Nicolas, felt left out socially because he didn't have a Nintendo. But after many game-related arguments, nightly protests when called for dinner, and general moodiness, she decided to take radical steps. She took away the game, and told them it would only be taken out of hiding once a month.
"It's been a month now, and the difference is enormous," she says. "The boys play with their toys more, my oldest spends a lot of time playing piano, and everyone's moods are much sunnier."
Not all concerned parents are willing to go cold turkey. While they may recognize that game-playing is encroaching on time that could be spent playing outdoors, reading, or socializing with friends and family, they worry, as did Ms. Salvo, that their children will be socially ostracized if they go without. And, they say, a bit sheepishly, that these games are convenient when Mom or Dad wants a break from sleeve-tugging interruptions.
If it weren't for her 3-year-old son's love of "Mario" on his Nintendo set, Mary Harrington says she would be hard-pressed to get dinner on the table in a timely fashion every evening. They also pull out the game when Nicholas has a friend over. "It's exciting for him to share his toy," she says, adding that it's easy to see how a child could get hooked. But she recognizes too many benefits to pull the plug. "The challenge aspect is addictive, but he's getting a valuable introduction to computers and developing hand-eye coordination. It's like chocolate," she reasons. "It tastes good, but you can't eat a lot of it."
Creates a 'separate world'
Electronic games, because of their interactive nature, are often considered a more productive use of time than TV-watching. Carleton Kendrick, who consults with the online Learning Network as a family therapist, strongly disagrees. "They both encourage children to merely react to preprogrammed entertainment, robbing them of self-initiated, self-directed creative play, which is essential to intellectual development."
Some of the most "fractured families" Mr. Kendrick works with, as he calls them, are those who constantly disappear into their own separate, virtual worlds.
"I'm not looking for the Waltons in front of the hearthside sharing stories," he explains, "but parents are kidding themselves if they think quality family time means everyone staring at their own screen, whether it's TV, a computer, or a video game."
His approach isn't so Draconian as to suggest a moratorium on all electronic entertainment. But it is crucial, he says, to set boundaries. Those boundaries should apply to general screen time or what Kendrick calls "tube time." For example, he suggests, a parent could allow one hour per day of tube time to divide up as a child wishes. "Obviously," he adds, "there has to be parent approval. You won't want to allow soap operas, R-rated movies, or downloading random stuff off the Web."
Currently, says Kendrick, some children spend a total of 40 hours a week sitting in front of an electronic screen. "That's a workweek!" he exclaims. "Just think about what else they could be doing with that time."
Parents might want to occasionally sit with their children during the hour, Kendrick adds. "Co-computing allows a parent to share a child's world."
J.C. Herz, an electronic-game consultant and author of "The Joystick Nation" takes this idea even further. "Parents are terrified of video games because they don't understand them," she says. "Instead of allowing this to keep them away, they need to get involved and play with their child. The child will naturally take over as teacher since they know more. It's pretty interesting to let the power relationship be disrupted this way."
Teachers feel the competition
Ms. Herz draws a comparison between today's fascination with electronic devices and crazes for collecting baseball cards, comic books, or Barbie dolls in past decades. "There have always been inside activities that are deeply engaging to children. People lose memory of that."
As she sees it, the worst effects of excessive electronics are lack of physical activity and boredom at school. "Video games challenge kids much more than sitting in a desk watching someone with a piece of chalk," she explains. "It's astounding how much they can learn. They play 'Age of Empires' and suddenly know what plows the ancient Celts were using. Educators need to make learning equally as engaging."
Deborah Goldeen is one mom who wishes she had a magic wand to make electronic games just a little less engaging. "Of all the issues surrounding these games," says the mother of two boys, "the inability to pause and save is the worst." She learned the hard way, after many loud protests, which she described this way in an e-mail: " 'I caaaaaaaaant staaaaaawp! You'll make me lose this level/game/token,' followed by sometimes hours of crying."
She vows to never again buy a game that cannot be paused. And after years of wrangling with Simon, 14, and Marty, 11, she has finally found a way to stop playing cop.
"I've asked them to keep a log of their own game time. Now they can see for themselves what they are doing to the exclusion of other things. I also might call an occasional moratorium if I think they've gone too far. I just go with my gut on this."
Thanks to those pause buttons, Simon and Marty stopped playing just long enough to comment, however briefly, on what they find appealing about electronic games. "You go into another world," says Simon, to which Marty chimes in: "You get to pretend you're the monster slayer or the attack-force commander!"
His mother gets a rare laugh out of this. Despite her concerns, she knows that they, just like 16-year-old Ehren Oertell, will eventually kick the habit. Or at least put it on pause for perhaps longer than ever before.
Tips for parents
Don't be afraid to set limits.
Be careful not to just cave in to social pressure. Caving in can send a message that you care too much about what others think.
Allow a set amount of time for screens of any sort - TV, computer, and video games. For example, 30 minutes or one hour a day. Then ask children to divide up the time however they choose.
Only allow electronic play after homework and chores are done.
Stick closely to ratings. Don't go beyond what's appropriate for your child's age.
Buy games that can be paused.
Encourage children to broaden their interests beyond electronics.
Ask children to keep a log of the time they spend playing.
Call a moratorium on electronics whenever you sense a child's interest is getting out of hand.
Watch for temperament changes. Ask yourself if your child was different before Nintendo. Has he/she changed for better or worse? Has any aspect of family life been compromised?
Don't let your own fear of electronics keep you from entering their world. Learn as much as you can about the games, play alongside your child, and let him or her teach you.
-- Tips culled from interviews with parents, educators, and family counselors.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor