Even in this mild winter, daylight hours are limited and even naturally active and imaginative kids find themselves looking for something to pass a little idle time indoors. These become the days of the hand-held video games.
Parents around North Jersey find themselves balancing the benefits of an occupied child with the inherent negatives of video games. Everyone knows the detrimental contribution of video games as a substitute for physical activity when it comes to childhood obesity. But many assume they must also be bad for vision, posture and children's hands.
Pediatric ophthalmologist Carl Guterman banned the hand-held games in his house. Is this validation for parents everywhere telling their kids to put down the game before they go blind? Not exactly.
"That, you can't say," says Guterman, who dislikes the games' mindless and addictive nature.
"You can say they might become stupid," he adds with a laugh.
According to the Hackensack University Medical Center ophthalmologist, the science just doesn't back up any assumption that there is a negative effect on vision. The worst they can surmise — and Guterman makes a point to say this is just a hypothesis — is that long periods of time spent focusing up close on handheld video games may, just like with avid early readers, cause near-sightedness.
Hand-held video games actually have a proven positive effect on sight for some children. Guterman says that these games can help kids with a lazy eye. For those children wearing a patch over the good eye to help train the lazy eye, hand-held video games are becoming part of the treatment.
"They're really focusing on these small little targets and that seems to bring back their vision quicker than if they weren't doing anything," he says.
OK, so what about any negative effects on a child's health beyond her eyes?
Pediatrician Alan Kanter, a specialist on children with ADHD, is closely watching new research. ADHD kids often have trouble sleeping and a Swiss study suggests that playing video games or looking at computer screens at night can be a contributing factor to those issues.
"Work coming out of Basel, Switzerland, is demonstrating there's a definite negative effect from these video games and hand-held toys that have a computer screen on the body's synthesis of melatonin in terms of setting the clock that helps a kid fall asleep," says Kanter, who is part of Metropolitan Pediatric Group with offices in Teaneck and Closter.
The amount of time needed between playing and bed is unclear, says Kanter, but video games definitely should not be the last activity before turning out the lights to sleep.
And while some parents worry about things like carpal tunnel or neck pain or injuries because of the repetitive movement and awkward posture when holding these games, Kanter does not — at least not with younger children.
"That's a chronic overuse situation," he says. "I'm not concerned about kids spending hours and hours and hours of time. No child spends hours and hours of time, not young children, they're too restless."