- - Sunday, January 6, 2013


Culture challenge of the week: Violence because “they like it.”

Kids like doughnuts: glazed doughnuts, jelly doughnuts and chocolate doughnuts. Serve a box of doughnut holes at a party, after a sleepover or during a long car ride and watch how fast they disappear.

Given the choice, my own kids (when they were younger, at least) would have eaten doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? Because they liked them. If I had left it up to them, they regularly would have bypassed healthy food to feast on what they liked.

Other junk foods generate equal devotion — and lopsided diets. I remember a neighbor complaining to me that her first-grader wouldn’t eat anything but hot dogs. “It’s the only thing he likes.” So that’s what she gave him. Her pediatrician assured her that as long as she offered other foods, eventually her son would choose more nutritious foods.

Except that he didn’t. He was perfectly content with the high-fat, high-sodium, low-nutrient hot dog (and the chips to go with it), day after day. The rest of his diet was equally poor: He refused fruits, vegetables or lean meats. Months later, as his growth plateaued, his mom came to her senses and stopped serving him unhealthy food, no matter how much he protested that he liked it better.

As parents, we know it makes no sense to feed our children a steady diet of food that won’t help them grow strong — and in fact might make them sick. It’s up to us to restrict the doughnuts and hot dogs, no matter how much our kids like them.

If we can accept our responsibility to feed our children healthy food, so their bodies grow strong and develop properly, why do parents find it so difficult to do the same with children’s video game diets, which affect their emotional and intellectual growth?

According to recent surveys, 91 percent of children play video games. The numbers, especially among younger children (ages 2 to 5) have spiked with the advent of mobile applications and tablets. Playing video games isn’t a bad thing, categorically. It all depends on the content (and the time spent, but that’s a column for another day).

How to save your family: Teach kids to like what’s good

The impact of playing violent video games has drawn heightened scrutiny since the massacre in Newtown, Conn. Shooter Adam Lanza, troubled by mental health issues and his parents’ divorce, reportedly also played violent video games daily, for hours on end. While it’s an irresponsible stretch to place the blame on his fascination with gaming violence, it’s reasonable to suggest, as some have done, that video games may have desensitized him to the notion of shooting up innocent people and thus been a contributing factor in his murderous rampage.

But the average kid certainly won’t be an Adam Lanza, so why should parents worry? Research shows a clear link between violent video games and negative behaviors in adolescents — including increased aggression, decreased empathy and desensitization to violence.

What are your children playing? Do their favorite games feed them a steady diet of blood, killing, mayhem or verbal aggression? Violence is a diet as unhealthy to children as the daily hot dog or doughnut. And it matters little that a child says, “That’s the only thing I like to play.”

The games our children play affect their hearts, minds and emotions. Damage to a child’s character, emotions and capacity for empathy can’t be redressed with a vitamin pill or supplemental feeding. Just as with food, parents making decisions about video games need to ask first, “Is it good for him (or her)?” and only then ask, “Does he (or she) like it?”

Shepherd your children toward video games that are good, or at least neutral, for them. Help them acquire the taste for better options, and don’t be daunted if it takes awhile.

As with food, sometimes the healthy option becomes appealing only after the junk is off the table.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected].

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