Quality Time Over Mario Kart May Strengthen Family Ties

Video games may help strengthen the bond between parents and daughters.

January 31, 2011, 3:40 PM

Feb. 1, 2011— -- Parents, and even some researchers, have long blamed video games for such problems as obesity, violence, depression and detachment from family and friends.

But Brigham Young University School of Family Life researchers stand by a positive notion that could surprise some people: Video games may help strengthen the bond between parents and their daughters.

While some doctors would say video games and other sources of so-called screen time offer little if any health benefits, this study begs to differ.

The study found that girls who played video games with a parent behaved better, felt more connected to their families and had better mental health than those girls who did not play video games with their parents.

Researchers also found that these game-playing gals had lower levels of internalization of emotions and higher levels of social behavior with their family members than those who did not play video games with parents. But, there was no evidence of such benefits with boys.

"Playing video games with your girls could be a really good thing," said Sarah Coyne, Ph.D., assistant professor of family life at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study. "It's the face-to-face time with an adolescent culture-type of game. When parents play with their kids, they're saying, 'I'm willing to do what you what you like to do.'"

It is important to note that positive bonding time was only associated with age-appropriate video games. Mario Kart, Mario Brothers, Wii Sports, Rock Band and Guitar Hero topped the list of games that girls most often played, while boys played Call of Duty, Wii Sports and Halo most often.

Researchers found that if the game was rated M for Mature, feelings of family connectedness weakened overall.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, included 287 families with a teen or tween-aged child. Parents and kids filled out multiple surveys about their gaming habits, family processes and adolescent behavior.

About half of the kids reported playing video games with their parents, even if it was not frequent or for a long period of time.

Coyne noted that the lack of effect on boys may be due to boys spending far more time playing video games with friends or alone, so that the small amount of time spent playing with parents does not stand out as much as it does with girls.

But experts warn that this is an associative study, so there is no way to determine if co-playing actually causes the observed effects on behavior and overall mental health.

Coyne said she would like to conduct follow-up studies where subjects are brought into the lab where more outside factors can be controlled.

"You have to be careful with causality here," said Dr. Judith Myers-Walls, professor emeritus of child development and family development at Purdue University. "It could be that these girls are closer to their parents anyway, rather than the games causing the closeness."

Despite the warnings, Myers-Walls said the findings are quite believable due to the way boys and girls generally play, the games that each gender prefers to play and the competitiveness between both genders.

"In general, boys are more competitive with people they care about, and girls are more likely to cooperate with people they care about," Myers-Walls said. "I think the girl issue is probably partly related to being less cut-throat competitive with others, and they probably don't play violent games."

Violent games, like Call of Duty and Halo, tend to be individual in nature, whereas games like Guitar Hero are collaborative, cooperative and less aggressive, Myers-Walls noted.

"I don't know if you can really feel connected while playing those violent games, but with a cooperative game like Rock Band, you have to save each other and work together as a band. That fosters cooperation and communication," Coyne said.

And Myers-Walls agreed that cooperative efforts tend to foster positive family dynamics.

"They can talk about stuff, make decisions together, where they're not just trying to beat each other," she said. "You may end up talking strategy and supporting each other on how well the other has done without saying, 'gee, I beat you.'

"The games that you see kids getting lost in are those single-person games," she said. "Once they get there, they're in cyberspace somewhere and they won't pay attention to whether they missed dinner or anything like that."

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