video games as addictive as drugs?

February 23rd, 2011 1 comment

(I’d like this post to grow and evolve with feedback from readers, so please post comments early and often, critique and suggest improvements, or even argue with me.  — o’daddy)

As a father of two six-year-olds, I’m now finding myself struggling with the Issue of Video Games.

When I was a kid, no one thought enough about video games to be worried about the fact that I spent several hours a day playing Bard’s Tale or Wizardry or Ultima 4-9.  Even as I matured into a teenager, game-time wasn’t really considered an issue.  The other adults in my life will have to judge for themselves how this has affected my development, and what sort of individual I am, but speaking for myself, I’m pretty happy with my life.  I was inspired to study computer science because of video games, my third, fourth, and fifth jobs out of college were as a programmer of video games, and it turns out that this programming thing pays pretty well.  I don’t actually play games all that much anymore, except when the occasional Nethack binge overtakes me, but for the most part, I’d say they’ve been pretty positive in terms of their affect on my life.

This is all anecdotal and not very scientific, so it isn’t a valid refutation (which is where this post is headed) of articles like the following:

There are more strongly slanted articles like these all over the internet, and the alarmist tone of these (especially the titles) is frightening, especially for parents.  Surely, it’s designed to be that way: scary headlines probably pull in more readers.

The problem is that a lot of these articles aren’t really founded in all that much science, either.  They all seem to take various studies or reports on dopamine release associated with playing video games, and suggest that this is somehow similar to the “high” experienced by users of drugs like cocaine.  I’m not a physician or a medical expert in any way, nor have I ever taken cocaine, but that assertion is simply ridiculous.

That’s not to say that video games (like many enjoyable activities) are not potentially addictive.  As a parent, you certainly have a responsibility to monitor and limit your child’s activities, video games included.

But dopamine is not a drug.  The release of dopamine in your child’s brain is not in an of itself a bad thing.  If it were, we’d have to restrict them from doing things like eating, asking questions, exploring, or competition.  As mentioned in the Discovery article linked above:

“The thing to remember about dopamine is that it’s not at all the same thing as pleasure,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who looks at dopamine in a cultural context in his book, Satisfaction. “Dopamine is not the reward; it’s what lets you go out and explore in the first place. Without dopamine, you wouldn’t be able to learn properly.”

Cocaine seems to work in the brain by actively inhibiting your ability to reabsorb the dopamine already present, in addition to causing a dramatic increase in dopamine output.  At the very least, an important distinction between cocaine and video games (even if video games do cause an increase in dopamine output), is that video games do not act as reuptake inhibitors, in that way that cocaine and amphetamines do.

In other words, the dopamine release and reuptake process in your child’s brain, while playing video games, is normal and healthy.  This is how the brain is meant to function.  In essence, dopamine is helping your child process success in the game as a rewarding experience, and encouraging them to pursue further success.  This cycle of “virtual success” could certainly be addictive, I understand that concern.  But it can also be a very powerful motivation for learning, exploring and achieving.

How much time should your child have with video games per day?  I think that depends on you, the parent, and also on your child.  You should guide them to the projects and hobbies that best help them grow as individuals.  One of my sons shies away from video games, and I’d very much like to challenge him to play more.  One would literally play video games all day every day, given the choice.  I’d like him to spend more time sitting quietly with a book, or drawing or building LEGO-castles.  I don’t think a half-hour to an hour a day is unreasonable, though I think it may also be a mistake to create an expectation of a certain amount of game-time each day for some children — this is still an issue I’m struggling with, and I’d love to hear how other parents tackle it.

Game on.

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joy

October 26th, 2009 No comments

Tonight, Ollie and Reid were laying in bed, tucked in like champions.  It was a short night, but a really great one.  Ollie looked up at me and then somewhat shyly (unusual for him) ducked under his comforter to avoid my glance.  As he did so, I realized that I was grinning at him like a total idiot.  I really was just sitting there looking at them both, totally filled with joy, and almost laughing from it.

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sick kid

February 27th, 2009 No comments

Brought Reid home from school with a fever today.  Hope he gets better quick.  Ollie’s still on antibiotics for similar symptoms a few days ago.  I hope it doesn’t cycle back, or turn into a humanity-ending super-virus.

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new wordpress

February 27th, 2009 No comments

The previous installation of wordpress hosting this blog was hand-installed by me.  That was silly and hard to maintain, so I’ve switched to one maintained by Fantastico.  Should be easier to update it with new releases, and so on.  I hope.  If you see weirdness, please email me about it.

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brain highways

September 29th, 2008 7 comments

Disclaimer:  I’m a parent, not a representative of the Brain Highways organization.

I haven’t blogged in a long time about Brain Highways, probably at least partly because it consumes so much time.  But I get enough questions about it that making a blog entry will probably save me time, so here goes.

Our understanding of Ollie’s time at the baby-house in Russia from which he was adopted is that he spent a significant portion of his time in a crib on his back.  He was not able to play with the other children because he had a habit of making himself spit-up.  A lot.  This was a habit he brought home, too, but grew out of within a few months.  Because of it, though, the staff at this baby-house tended to leave him in his crib, where he spent much of his time, and seemingly most of it laying on his back (as opposed to on his stomach — I’ll come back to that shortly).

Parenthetically, he also came home with the remarkable ability, at ten months old, of being able to snap his thumb and middle finger on each hand, hard enough to be audible.  It was a sort of nervous habit of his, which he also eventually grew out of.  At four, he cannot now snap at all.

At any rate, the time on his back was obvious from the shape of his head, the back of which was very flat.  His head gradually reshaped itself, and now he is a very healthy and normal little boy, with the exception of some very important neurological development.

If you have kids, or are planning to have kids, listen to this part closely.  One of the best things you can do for your child’s development between birth and twelve months is leave them on their stomach on the ground.  Ideally, a smooth floor, so they can slide around on their belly (called “creeping”).  What we’ve been told by the staff at Brain Highways is that this time on the floor is critical to pons and midbrain development.  We of course, as parents who wanted our kids to thrive, encouraged them to stand and walk via toys, hand-holding, etc..  Ollie probably went from just barely sitting up to walking within the span of a few months.

As you can discover for yourself from the wikipedia articles, the pons is responsible for relaying sensory information, as well as integrating with the vestibular system to help (or hinder) balance, speaking, and sense-of-touch.  Apparently, it is also (though wikipedia doesn’t seem to mention it) largely in control of the “fight or flight” response system (perhaps the term “arousal” in the wikipedia article includes this).  The midbrain is responsible for managing things like auditory processing, visual processing, managing eye-movement (ie., reading), reflexes, and a number of other things.

The human brain is very good at adapting to and hiding weaknesses, though, so what seems to happen when these low-level “paths” (call them highways, if you like) through the brain remain underdeveloped is that the higher-level sections of the brain pick up slack, compensating as effectively as they can.  This means that, if your child has an underdeveloped pons and/or midbrain, they are likely doing a lot of juggling in their cortex in order to be able to walk, talk, focus their eyes, absorb the things you say to them, and so on, all at once.  Depending on the level of development your child has completed in these areas, you’ll see varying levels of overall functionality, and often in different areas.  For more developed children, in fact, you may not perceive any fundamental behavioral differences at all, whereas very underdeveloped children will exhibit symptoms strikingly like autism.

As your child ages, however, more and more demands are placed upon the cortex.  Sports, studying, more complex and difficult relationships, greater responsibility, and hormones among other things all conspire to increase the overall load on the cortex.  For a lot of kids, this means a difficult juggling act, and eventually, they drop everything.  With older kids, this type of failure can be very serious.  Worse, it can become cyclical, putting more and more strain on the cortex, and leaving the pons and the midbrain (underdeveloped though they may be) more and more in control, and all the pons knows how to do is fight-or-flight.

Fight or flight sounds simplistic, but it isn’t.  There are variations and subtleties, and sometimes it means different things for different children.  Flight can be shyness, avoiding certain activities, or social anxiety and avoidance of social situations.  Flight means withdrawing.  Fight means a lot of things: explosive outbursts, highly emotional reactions, and yes, physicality.

Neither Ollie or Reid have come to these stages, but Ollie especially has most definitely exhibited some of these fight-or-flight behaviors.  He struggles with sports and has a hard time concentrating.  Until we started brain highways, he had trouble standing still or sitting in one place without rocking and kicking.  He had trouble listening and complying.  Even though it was almost always clear he was trying to please us as his parents, he struggled to comply with even simple instructions.  He chewed on everything he could get in his mouth.  He would frequently have drool on his chin without noticing or reacting.  He was often easily frustrated.

So what is Brain Highways?  It turns out that a lot (all of?) of this low-level development can be made-up in later life, offloading the burden of performing these low-level tasks from the cortex, and sending it back to where it belongs: the pons and midbrain.  So what we do in brain highways are exercises modeled on the behaviors of young babies as they are developing these regions of the brain.  One of the exercises, for example, is called “swords”, and seems to be modeled on the tonic-neck reflex (also called the fencing reflex) that causes young human babies to strike a fencing pose, when they turn their heads (or when their heads are turned for them).  Another exercise is called “creeping”, which is the motion of sliding across the floor that babies do when they want to move, but before their muscles have developed enough to allow them to lift their chest or tummy off the ground.  We do dozens (sometimes hundreds) of these a day, and the results are hard to argue with.  After a few weeks of work, Ollie is different in any number of ways: he almost never drools, he sits much more still at the table, he’s much better at concentrating, remembering tasks and rules, and following directions.  His agility has improved, and he is much better at accepting quick transitions.

We just started the program with Reid (who at his baseline doesn’t have a lot of the problems that Ollie started with, but still has some very telling symptoms), and it will be interesting to see how they improve over the coming year or so.  If you live near Encinitas, CA (or even if you don’t, I think they do traveling workshops), check out the brain highways website linked above, it could be one of the best things you ever do for your kid or yourself.

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a pox on our house!

July 22nd, 2008 No comments

Last night, we saw what surely must be a rash from chicken-pox on Reid’s knees and shoulders, and a little bit on his stomach.  One of his friends has recently been diagnosed with it, so we’re pretty sure.  He’s going to the doctor today, but I’m pretty confident.

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zoo day!

July 21st, 2008 No comments

We had a great day at the zoo yesterday.

Well, we had a great day, part of it was at the zoo:

Ollie climbing on a ladder

Ollie climbing on a ladder at Balboa Park

The boys were up at about 7:15AM, or at least that’s approximately when I became conscious enough to have awareness of them being awake.  They were busy playing monorails, so I didn’t interrupt.  Instead, I made waffles, which we all ate.  Then they played some more, Reid playing Cars on the XBox 360, Ollie playing monorails more, then Ollie took a shower with me.  The boys (mostly Reid, this time, remarkably enough) cleaned up, and we left by about 11:40, driving south.

We stopped in Sorrento Valley at a Jamba Juice off of Mira Mesa and got a Strawberry Surfrider (“Pink Drink!”) for the boys and an Orange Dream for me, then kept heading south.  We parked at the zoo (Ollie wanted to know if it was the zebra section or the kangaroo section — turns out it was the kangaroo section), then headed towards Balboa park and started the day there with a ride on the miniature railroad.  After that, we headed to the fountain, then toward the play area.

Both boys on the swings

Both boys on the swings at Balboa Park

They played on ladders and on the swings, and on a cool whirling spinning thing (only Reid) that I should’ve taken a picture or video of, but didn’t.  I went out of my way to geotag everything on my phone, so maybe I’ll put the tagged pictures up on a map somewhere.

We also saw a group of people taking what must’ve been a drum lesson (maybe a free one?).  Reid was fascinated, but Ollie was ready to move on.

As an aside, one weird thing about the park is that it has trees and shade everywhere but near the play-area.  I don’t understand why the play area itself isn’t well-shaded by trees.  Who thought this up?

Reid kneels on one of many platforms to watch the trains

Reid kneels on one of many platforms to watch the trains

After all that excitement, we went to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.  I think this museum is one of those places where, if you’re obsessed with a particular thing — even if it’s “just” your hobby — you pick up your whole life and move to be near that place.  It’s by far the largest set of model railroads, tracks, and trains I have ever seen.  Reid was absolutely fascinated.  So was I.  There were a handful of adults who seemed to have the sole task of maintaining the place.  It only cost the boys and I $6 to get in (kids under fifteen are free), so they must be volunteers.  Still, seems like a pretty great gig, if you can get it!

Me playing with the panoramic feature of my cell-phone camera

A panoramic image of the train set

Olle ignores the amazing museum

Olle ignores the amazing museum

Ollie preferred to play with the Thomas the Tank Engine train-set stowed in a corner of the museum.  This area seems to be the place where most moms and small children wind up while older kids (mostly boys) and their dads observe the minutia (quite literally) of the model train museum.  One of the the museum’s employees was giving what sounded like an interesting tour; if I get a chance to bring Reid back by himself, perhaps we’ll do that.  For Ollie, a tour like that would be the worst form of torture.

This play area got crowded, and eventually even Reid joined in.  I was packed in with about ten other kids and four or five other parents.  Somehow neither of my kids got hurt or upset, or did any injury upon any of the other kids, so we all escape unscathed.

Wow, we’re not even at the Zoo yet!

We took a short break after the train museum for some bad-for-us snacks, and water (for Ollie and me) and milk (for Reid).  Then we headed out to actually go to the Zoo!

We did get interrupted by some sort of turtle/tortoise exposition on the way there; it was free so we went in.  I don’t have any photographic evidence of this, so perhaps it was some sort of sun-exposure-induced hallucination on my part.

Watching

Watching

Well, we finally made it to the Zoo!  I didn’t take any pictures of the Skyfari ride, because, like them, I was totally thrilled to be on the ride and nothing else occurred to me.  After that, we started down the hill toward Polar Bear Plunge.  After buying a churro and some more water, we stopped to watch the deer and get refreshed.

Still having fun!

Still having fun!

Then we continued onward.

A polar bear.

A polar bear.

Riding a polar bear.

Riding a polar bear.

Ollie, contemplating his navel

Ollie, contemplating his navel

Reid: a roll stuffed unceremoniously into his face

Reid: a roll stuffed unceremoniously into his face

I really like this restaurant Albert’s at the Zoo, so I go there whenever I get the chance.  The food is passable, the view is great, and what the heck, you’re at the zoo!  It’s the only sit-down restaurant at the zoo, and I really like it.  They got rid of my favorite dish which was a vegetable Napoleon and replaced it with a vegetable pave, which as far as I can tell is the exact same thing, only shorter.  Reid and Ollie enjoyed spinach ravioli.  Reid promised not to enjoy it, and therefore not to eat it, but I slid his “bubbles” (Sprite) away, and told him he’d get them back after he tried one bite.  He did, and I gave him back his sprite.  He insisted that he still would not eat the ravioli, but over the course of the rest of the meal quietly cleaned his plate of it, and at the end denied liking it one bit.  He most definitely didn’t complain about eating it after his first bite, though.  They both also wolfed down as much bread as they could get their hands on.

They complained about being cold, so we decided (in a great leap of amazing logic) that we would have to go see the snakes after dinner to warm up.  We did just that, then hurried to a restroom (for an hour or so here, I could swear we did little more than go to and return from restrooms).

One the way back from one restroom trip, we were waylaid by a band — a band with hula hoops!

O&R Hula Hoopin'

O&R Hula Hoopin'

On the way back from another restroom trip, we stopped at the Wegeforth bowl for a 7PM show.  Then we left for a restroom trip, but got back just in time for the show.  The show consisted of a hawk (some sort of bird native to San Diego, whose name I now forget), a misbehaving sea lion, and a tamandua — which is essentially a miniature anteater.

The hawk flew directly over our heads, which we all thought was neat.  The sea-lion kissed a little girl on the cheek — apparently in a previous show, his victim had gotten a kiss on the lips, so he was practicing for the next one in our little “show”.  Finally, we were delighted to learn that anteaters sometimes eat apple-sauce.

Cute, huh

Cute, huh?

We took this picture on the way out just to prove that we can be cute whenever we wanna be.  Both boys were asleep within about fifteen minutes of starting the drive home.

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early morning revelations from ollie

July 20th, 2008 No comments

“My brother is truth.” — Ollie

“We are true, you’re not.  Okay, daddy?” — Ollie

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ugh!

July 14th, 2008 No comments

Ollie bit Reid during a play-date today.  Can’t wait for Brain Highways.

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