If anything short of a new computer game from Santa this Christmas will be a huge disappointment to your child, it may be time to re-think the place of technological toys in their life. In fact, regardless of what your kids would like to see under the tree this year – and indeed, regardless of how old they are – there's never been a better time to think carefully about technological toys. After all, you want to make the most of the huge choice of tools promising to educate and amuse your children, but you don't want to lead them on a path towards the growing problem of computer-game addiction or conversely, to waste your money on expensive purchases that they will stay interested in for only a few days.
There's no doubt that technological toys – ranging from basic talk-back toys for pre-schoolers through to complex computer games – help develop everything from puzzle-solving skills through to strategic and critical thinking. "They can help children learn leadership and planning skills, and even social skills," adds Kimberley Young, clinical director of the Center for Online Addiction in the USA. But, she says, there's also no doubt that children can become addicted due to "clinical impulse control disorder" – in other words, an addiction in the same sense as compulsive gambling.
"I have so many parents call me, particularly about role-playing games," she says. The effects vary, but most children become withdrawn, while some also become aggressive and fall back in their school work. Studies support her view, with one piece of research carried out by the National Institute on Media and the Family finding that addicted adolescents were significantly more likely to report having been in a fight in the past year and were also much more likely to argue with friends, be hostile generally and have lower academic grades. Such is the problem in the Netherlands that an addiction treatment centre has set up a specific approach to helping youngsters detox from computer games. Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants, said he created the programme in response to the growing problem, particularly among young men and boys. "The more we looked at it, the more we saw gaming was taking over the lives of kids," he says.
So what makes these games so addictive? The fact that they're so compelling, with increasing complexity, is certainly significant. Some studies even suggest that the excitement of computer games causes the brain to release a chemical that is, in essence, addictive. Young adds that it's no coincidence that the children who suffer the most have low self-esteem: "They use the game to fill missing needs. For instance, a child who is failing at school and has few friends can go online to become a great warrior. They feel lost in real life but online they feel good about themselves, have friends and are respected. They retreat more and more into the game."
Solving the problem at this late stage is no mean feat, not least because the obvious answer – removing the computer game or even the computer – can lead to the child becoming angry, disobedient and defensive, says Young. In any case, computers have become such an important part of everyday life that simply cutting out computers from your child's life could have a detrimental effect on, say, their homework. It's also hard for parents to show their child they're in trouble. "Nobody's ever been put in jail for being under the influence of a game," points out Bakker.
The good news is that it needn't come to this and even parents of very young children can do their bit, not only in preventing computer game addiction later down the line, but in avoiding the opposite problem of putting children off technology altogether by giving them an uninspiring introduction to the world of computers.
Think carefully about the interactive element of any technological toy you buy, advises Alison Quill, the founder of the educational toy providers www.brightminds.co.uk. "Computer-based toys are great for younger children, but only if used to create interaction with other children and adults. Good products come with suggestions for how to stimulate interaction and how, as a carer, you can use the product with your child," she says, providing the example of Leapfrog's Fridge Words, which enables you to create over 325 three-letter words with magnetic letters that sing and teach.
Tim Leverett, founder of the Giggles Baby product line – which help babies and toddlers to understand computers – adds that while it's tempting to focus on educational aspects of technological toys, they should be fun first and foremost. "There are educational aspects to many of our programs, but we like to see those as a great side effect and certainly not the main motivator for purchase. The key points must be fun and engaging bonding experiences for parent and child."
He adds that even from very young, parents should only use such toys and games with their children for short periods. "Spend 15 minutes, then move on to playtime with other toys and playtime outside."
Sian Williams, who researches and buys toys for the Early Learning Centre, advises parents to check that technological "talk back" toys for the very young – such as their Phonics Alphabet Desk – should always have correct pronunciation of letters and words, and ideally not an American accent. She also suggests being bold with your expectations from each toy – for example, the facilitation of self-expression and confidence building. "It's not just about learning letters and numbers. Some of our strongest lines are keyboards and microphones – great for singing at the top of your voice, recording funny sound effects and just having a great time. Kids can get together with their friends or simply experiment with their own vocal sounds and musical compositions in the quiet of their own room. These kinds of toys have lasting play value and are not just overnight wonders."
Some of the most exciting technology-based toys for younger children are focused on learning to read. Both VTech's Bugsby Reading System and Leapfrog's Tag Reading System have sensor pens that read the stories out loud and interact with different elements in the book. They literally bring books to life and are designed to allow the child to learn at their own pace, ensuring that they remain motivated to play week after week. When you consider the use of technology in schools has been proven to motivate reluctant learners, you can see why some parents rush out the moment their child expresses an interest in such toys.
As children grow older and venture towards their first computer games, don't panic, says Laura Bonney, who is working with a London school on a pilot project to use computer games in the classroom for educational purposes. She's been using Nintendo's DS and Wii consoles with some new drawing software so that children can create their own hero character and bring their own imaginations to life in the game. "We found that the kids got a lot out of using gaming in the classroom. They were very excited, obviously, as it was something new and fun, but they also worked together really well and the creativity they brought to life on the screen demonstrated a brilliant grasp of problem solving," she says.
Meanwhile, Duncan Black, director at Fitnessgaming, points out that computer games increasingly encourage physical activity. "Dance games by their nature are very social, so rather than children being locked away in dark rooms playing on their own, they are more likely to be in groups playing together," he adds. "And unlike passive games, where children can just sit for hours, they need to be very active when playing dance games and will inevitably become physically tired. This will limit the amount of time they can play."
But don't leave it to chance, cautions Joan Harvey, psychologist at Newcastle University. "The most important thing any parent can do is establish boundaries, especially around the time issue. There may be a horrible price to pay if you don't."
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Parentline, which receives growing numbers of emails from parents with concerns around computer use, agrees. "It's helpful to have a computer clearly in view and to agree time limits to help balance computer time with other family activities," he says.
Ask other parents for advice and ensure games are age appropriate and free of race and gender stereotyping, he adds. "And think about hiring games rather than buying them to minimise the cost."
While Todd is the first to admit technology-based toys and games can help develop analytical and fine motor skills, improve typing and dexterity, he advises parents to recognise the wake-up calls of children becoming self-absorbed and isolated, as well as overtired and disinterested in food and drink.
"At this point, establishing clear time limits and even banning games or cutting off the internet may be required," he says, although Dr Simon Moore, psychologist at London Metropolitan University disagrees.
"In a study involving more than 1,200 children, we found that children who had blocked access to computer games showed more negative emotions than those who had some access to playing them," says Moore. "The children with no access felt resentful and socially isolated from their friends who were allowed to play – and it was this resentment that seemed to lead to later negative emotions – not playing the games."
Probably the best advice, he says, is for parents to talk to their children to find out why they like the game so much. "Tell your children what you are concerned about and be aware that you'll need to know something about the game."
'It's my duty as a parent to keep everything in moderation'
When Julie Hargreaves' eight-year-old son, who has a sweet tooth, started missing dessert to get back to his computer games, she realised it was time to take action.
"I used to feel smug that Jack loved his own company. So when he showed an interest in computer games, I thought nothing of it. But very quickly, his interest in most other things disappeared, and even when he went round to other children's houses, it was to play on their computer. His excitement around Christmas became entirely focused on the expectation of the next computer game.
Determined to nip the problem in the bud, I spoke to friends and sought advice on the internet, and it wasn't long before I felt confident about dropping the hours Jack spent playing computer games week by week. It meant there was no dramatic change and the alternation that did happen was backed up with an explanation from me that it's my duty as a parent to keep everything in moderation – just as I would if he was only eating chips.
Of course he was cross, but it helped that I said the time he lost on the computer could be spent doing any other activity he wanted. To my surprise, he chose an unusual sport and, although difficult, I found a class. As he played computer games less, he thought about them less and now he only plays twice a week. I'm glad I didn't ban it completely because I have seen for myself how games help things such as problem-solving. It's also helped Jack with completing tasks – something he hasn't been good at in the past. He's happy with the balance and so am I."
All names have been changed in this article