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Children drawn to Wii, but effects questioned


Jennifer Davies

The Union-Tribune

May 18, 2008

Birgen Grueskin is barely 5 and already she can bowl a spare, play a game of tennis and send a golf ball flying. So can Zuzu, her 3-year-old sister. Even Race, their 18-month-old brother, gets into the act.

No, they are not a family of sports prodigies.

The Grueskin family of Carlsbad is part of a growing number of young families flocking to the Wii, Nintendo's video game console.

A quick search on YouTube finds more than a hundred videos of toddlers and preschoolers emphatically batting tennis balls and knocking down bowling pins. Type in “Wii” and “toddler” on Google, and you get nearly 500,000 hits.

Other video game consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation have long been the purview of teenagers and adults because of their complicated control panels. The Wii has made inroads outside that demographic and into the under-5 set because of its ease of use and its motion-sensor technology, which allows a swat of the arm to send a digitized ball sailing across the screen.

The Wii's accessibility has been good for business, with Nintendo selling more than 24 million of the game consoles since November 2006.

With the launch tomorrow of Wii Fit, which offers a variety of workout routines and games, analysts expect sales to climb even higher.

Nintendo doesn't have exact numbers of who is playing the Wii, but according to market research firm Zanthus, about 13 percent of children under 12 use the video game system.

“We find that once people buy it and bring it into their homes, it's a game system that gets the whole family involved,” said Denise Kaigler, a spokeswoman for Nintendo of America.

Nintendo says it doesn't have a suggested age for the Wii, but its marketing line is that Wii is for “everyone from 5 to 95.” The Toys “R” Us Web site lists the appropriate age for the Wii at 6.

So what does that mean for children under 5 who like to play the Wii?

The short answer is we just don't know, said Dr. Don Shifrin, a Seattle pediatrician who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media.

“This is the grand experiment that we are doing on this generation,” Shifrin said.

Studying the issue is difficult because technology changes at such a rapid pace, said Lawrence Kutner, co-founder of Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media and author of the new book “Grand Theft Childhood,” which examines the effects of video games on older children. Once a game becomes popular enough to study, a new one comes along.

“It's a moving target,” Kutner said.

That means parents must use their best judgment when deciding whether and how much a young child should play with a video game system like the Wii.

The key is moderation, Kutner said. His research shows the real problem is not the games themselves but rather when children watch TV or play video games “because of a poverty of options, when it's used as an electronic baby sitter.”

Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said it is an issue of both quantity and quality. Not only do parents have to limit how much time a child spends with a video game but also prevent the playing of even mildly violent games such as sword fighting or boxing.

“The main lesson is that content really matters,” Anderson said. “If you teach children violent lessons, they will take those violent lessons to the playground.”

Parents favor the Wii more than other video game consoles because it encourages more movement and activity, especially with the new Wii Fit coming out. Meredith Grueskin said she has been looking forward to adding Wii Fit to the family's game rotation.

Still, Shifrin said computer-generated play can't replace the real thing.

“Playing baseball on the Wii is interesting, but it's not as great as just tossing a ball around,” he said.

Michael Glenn, an Encinitas father, couldn't agree more. While Glenn and his children Alex, 5, and Ryan, 2, like to play the Wii Sports games, he said, “We've got better things to do than sit around the house all day.”

Parent Jason Parkes, 38, of La Mesa sees video games as the root of all modern-day child-rearing problems, from hyperactivity and obesity to attention deficit disorders and addictive behavior.

In a tongue-in-cheek interview about his young son, Parkes mocked the way some parents use the video games.

“Wii is obviously the best baby sitter ever invented,” he said with sarcasm. “In fact, he's been playing it all day and I haven't heard or spoken with him since breakfast at 7, freeing me up for more important things in life.”

But Anderson, the University of Massachusetts professor, said playing electronic games, even at a young age, does have some benefits.

“They are learning to interact with machines in interesting ways and interacting with machines is really the future of what they are going to be doing,” he said.

The key is not to start them off too young because the research has found that electronic media, from “Baby Einstein” videos to computer games, do little for children under the age of 2, Anderson said.

“You could at best argue that it is a waste of time,” he said.

Shawn Murray, who describes his 3-year-old son, Cole, as “addicted” to the Wii, said he sees both benefits and drawbacks.

Murray began limiting Cole's playing time when the child began acting up any time the Wii was turned off. Cole likes the Wii game “LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga” so much that he insisted on being called by his self-chosen screen name “Good Guy.” But he also became more interested in his Legos, building more elaborate and imaginative structures. Murray credits that change to playing with the Wii.

“His interest in Legos went way up,” he said.

Grueskin said she closely monitors her children's Wii time. She sees it as improving their hand-eye coordination and counting, and it teaches them how to be good sports.

“It can be a really good tool,” Grueskin said.

The lesson of sportsmanship was on display recently as Birgen and Zuzu played Wii tennis with each other.

“That was too fast for me,” Zuzu said as her sister lobbed a tennis ball when she wasn't looking.

“I want to win,” Birgen said.

Their mother stepped in as coach: “Everyone wants to win but you have to play fair.”


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