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IF we have a child who talks freely about zapping out complete strangers or sits in his semi-darkened room to watch a snuff movie, we would be alarmed. Yet daily children all over the world are engaged in warfare in their little boxed-up world that is their constant companion. Parents think nothing now about their barely teenaged child zapping away at the corner of the table and tearing out limbs as he or she eats placidly at a restaurant table.
What does it do to them beyond making them indulgent parents? What does it do to the child? Speculation about the effects of media violence on children should have been over 30 years ago, says Professor Craig A. Anderson of the Center for the Study of Violence at the Iowa State University. In a study with fellow researchers in the United States and Japan (in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008) he finds that the effect goes beyond the already known short term increase in aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour in young children.
There is the known positive correlation between habitual violent video game play and mild and severe forms of physical aggression. This study dispels the belief that children in highly individualistic cultures such as in the US are more prone to this effect.
"That both cultures yielded significant longitudinal effects of approximately the same magnitude illustrates the power of violent video games to affect children's developmental trajectories in a harmful way," the report concludes.
Another popular hypothesis about disposition to violence is also debunked. You probably are familiar with this one: no my child is not aggressive, he comes from a good home with no surrounding bad influence, it is not in our culture. All children will become more aggressive if repeatedly exposed to violent video games, and younger children are more susceptible to this than older ones.
Neuroscientists are discovering more and more about the plasticity of our brains: how they adapt to changing use and circumstances by creating new pathways or by shifting emphasis from one part of the brain to another.
Technology cannot be altogether bad but consider a child at the Playstation for hours of the day zapping alien mutants or travelling in virtual worlds. How will digital technology change the child? We have seen this many times before here in this column, but let's reprise. Dr Gary Small, professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), says that digital natives, that is, young people born into a world of laptops, cell phones, text messages and twittering, have permanently rewired neural circuitry. They are better at multitasking or at doing rapid searches but at the expense of other skills that have developed over generations, traditional learning skills. Thinking has shifted from the frontal cortex that helps us to see the bigger picture, reason abstractly and plan ahead to other areas that make them more impulsive, less empathic.
Occupational therapist Cris Rowan, a passionate researcher on the profound effects of technology on children, draws our attention to the research of Professor Akio Mori at the Tokyo Nihon University. Video games actually suppress frontal lobe activity, Mori says.
Mori, a cranial nerve specialist at the Tokyo Nihon, made an EEG study of 240 people between the age of 6 and 29.
He found that people who played video games regularly had less frontal lobe beta brainwave activity compared to ordinary people in an active cognitive state.
What's more alarming is Mori's observation that in terms of EEG profiles, a video gamer's is akin to people suffering from heavy dementia.
For people who use video-games as "dummies" to keep their very young preoccupied, there's the choice between quietude and their young one's frontal brain area.
Professor Ryunta Kawashima of Japan's Tohoko University observed the brain activity of teenagers playing a Nintendo game. Massaging this area hourly, daily, will only stimulate vision and movement, but the frontal area that controls behaviour and rational decisions is neglected.
Children steeped in Nintendo mania may have issues with self control. The part of the brain that video-gaming stimulates is the amygdala, the part connected with emotional arousal.
What the violent content of the video-game does is stimulation of the brain's arousal centres, doing little to the cortical areas involved in perception and thinking.
This information is important when you're thinking of the pruning phase in the child's teenage years.
That's when the brain decides to keep its important parts and drops the rest; and once those "unimportant" connections are dropped in adolescence, they'll probably go forever, they give way to cognitive powers that you will remain in your adult years.
These neural connections are important, says Dr Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Health in the US.
"Our cognitive abilities are so shaped and it is hard to alter them once they are formed".
It is impossible of course to keep children from computers, their mobile phones and their video-gaming, but the keyword is control.
Children should separate themselves from gadgets now and then keep their hold on those traditional skills.