A growing number of young families are 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. Its accessibility has been good for business, with Nintendo selling more than 24 million of the game consoles since November 2006. With the launch of Wii Fit, which offers a variety of workout routines and games, analysts expect sales to climb even higher. 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.”
So what does that mean for children under 5 who like to play the Wii? The short answer is we just don’t know, says Don Shifrin, M.D., a pediatrician who serves on the American Academy of Pedi-atrics’ Council on Communi-cations and Media. “This is the grand experiment that we are doing on this generation,” he says.
Studying the issue is difficult because technology changes at such a rapid pace, says Lawrence Kutner, co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Mental Health and Media and co-author of the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do (Simon & Schuster, 2008), 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 says.
That means parents must use their best judgment when deciding whether or not, and how much a young child should play with a video game system like the Wii. The key is moderation, Kutner says. 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 Mass-achusetts at Amherst, says 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 says. “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. Parent Jason Parkes, 38, sees video games as the root of all modern-day, child-rearing problems, from hyperactivity and obesity to attention deficit disorders and addictive behavior. “Wii is obviously the best baby sitter ever invented,” he said with sarcasm.
But Anderson, the University of Massachusetts professor, says 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 says. 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 says. “You could at best argue that it is a waste of time,” he says.