Video games: harmless fun or danger ahead?

Research exploring a link between video games and real-life violence has proved inconclusive, but Emirati mother Ayesha Al Janahi explains why she fears for the future development of children who play them regularly

Ayesha Al Janahi, mother of five-year-old Essa, is concerned about the negative impact of children playing video games in terms of their development. Clint McLean for The National
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Research exploring a link between video games and real-life violence has proved inconclusive. But Emirati mother Ayesha Al Janahi explains why she fears for the future development of children who play them regularly.

Ayesha Al Janahi thinks the world of her son, and understands that it takes time and effort to bring up a child with sound moral values.

So despite being busy with a full-time job, Mrs Al Janahi, 31, makes sure that she spends five hours every weekday with five-year-old Essa, playing, reading and taking trips.

Television is restricted and electronics limited to age-appropriate educational games such as Magnetic ABC and SketchBook, which can be played on an iPad.

Video games are another matter. The violence and abusive content of many is something that increasingly troubles the Emirati mother, who lives in Dubai.

“I love my son,” says Mrs Al Janahi with passion.

“I don’t throw my son in front of television or video games. Most video games are not innocent anymore.

“They have become more violent. Too often, children derive morals from characters in the game.”

A global leader at the World Forum Foundation, which promotes the exchange of ideas on children worldwide, she writes frequently on the subject for Sail magazine and Al Bayan newspaper.

She worries about both the content of games and the amount of time children are allowed to spend playing them.

“When a child is addicted to playing video games he is not using all of his senses,” says Mrs Al Janahi. “It kills his creativity and also kills brain cells.”

Many parents are not aware of the dangers, she feels. She has spent time watching a group of children playing video games, which had violent content including shooting and stabbing.

She describes the experience as eye-opening, and says: “I wanted to know how they felt about it”.

Phrases such as “I will kill you” and “I will stab you” were commonly used by the group, says Mrs Al Janahi.

She has also noticed aggressive behaviour among the children of friends, and attributes this to the video games they play. Even the children’s attitude to adults has changed.

“They have less respect for grown-ups and they use obnoxious words learnt from games that shouldn’t be used by these innocent souls,” says Mrs Al Janahi.

One of the most popular places to buy video games in the city of Abu Dhabi is the Madinat Zayed shopping centre.

The National visited 12 video game shops and spoke to Abdullah, who works at one and agreed to speak about its sales policy.

Asked about the most popular games among youngsters, he lists several titles: Call of Duty: Ghosts; Assassin’s Creed; Grand Theft Auto; Fifa 2015 (a football game); and Far Cry 4.

The Bengali-born assistant says that while the shop sells less violent games, “90 per cent of games we have in the shop are violent and about killing others. Most are bad games and these are not good for children’s brains”.

In Call of Duty, the player takes part in intense gun battles. The game is rated 17, meaning it should not be sold to anyone younger than that.

But when children below the age of 10 come in with their father and demand the game, “What am I supposed to do?” Abdullah asks.

The National Media Council has 15 criteria for all media, including video games.

Among them is that the content should not harm children, women or social groups, or incite hatred and violence.

Juma Alleem, director of media content at the NMC, says there are degrees of violence in games.

“We travelled extensively to various countries to look at the video games criteria,” he says.

“Families should also consider the rating system before buying games.”

Studies on the effect of violence in video games on children and teenagers has proved inconclusive.

Two years ago, United States president Barack Obama called for more research funding as part of a strategy to deal with America’s high annual death toll from gun violence.

The most recent study, by Dr Andrew K Przybylski, published this month in The Official Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, looked at up to 5,000 players, aged between 10 and 15.

Dr Przybylski found that gaming had the same function of other, more traditional forms of play and that “the influences of electronic gaming, for good or ill, are not practically significant”.

But he did caution against youths spending excessive time playing such games, concluding that those who spent more than half of their free time doing it “showed more negative adjustment”.

That finding may be particular relevant in the UAE. Last year’s Fun City Children’s Play Index analysed the activities of 1,000 children between two and 12 in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.

The survey showed social play decreasing among children, with digital games growing in popularity.

About 62 per cent of children owned a tablet computer and 57 per cent of them played it each week. But fewer than half the parents of those surveyed (48 per cent) knew the types of games being played on the device.

Not all children playing violent games are necessarily at risk, says Samia Kazi, chief operating officer at Arabian Child, a Dubai organisation that promotes improvement in early childhood.

“If a child has a solid foundation, a good relationship with parents and has role models to imitate, then they’re at lower risk,” says Ms Kazi.

But if the child lacks parental support and guidance, they are at higher risk and more likely to show aggression.

Ms Kazi refers to a study in which researchers scanned the brains of children who played video games, and those who did not.

“The study revealed that children who play games become less emotional and have less attention,” she says.

The need to make quick decisions and be aware of several things at one time means the brain loses its ability to focus on a specific topic, Ms Kazi believes.

Her concern is that in 20 years, children will lack critical thinking skills and the ability to pay attention.

She acknowledges that working women often find it easier to use an iPad to engage their children.

“I completely understand that working mothers need time to relax,” says Ms Kazi. “However, they should acknowledge that iPads or computers cannot teach children much. Parents should review the content of games and they should play with them.”

She recommends setting a time limit for video and online games.

“Children are growing faster and parents have increasingly become workaholics, leaving their children with either of two dangerous babysitters – untrained nannies and video games.”

“It is you that they need – your love, attachment and relationship. That’s what they yearn for, your presence. It’s irreplaceable.”

Mrs Al Janahi says: “During the first six years a child is learning to develop self-control. These years are crucial to their growth and whatever they experience in this period will eventually have an effect on their brain’s structure and future endeavours.”

She says children are not born with “how to” manuals, and therefore, need support and guidance.

Her goal is to form a physical, verbal and emotional bond with her son, entering his world and speaking his level of language.

She wants Essa to imagine his future and aspire, rather than spend his childhood in front of a video game.

Essa is an admirer of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Dubai and a champion endurance horse rider.

“I want you to be an intelligent boy,” she tells her son.

“I want you to be a great horse rider like Sheikh Hamdan.”