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How to talk to your kids about video games

Wednesday - 6/11/2014, 6:52am  ET

battlefield_640_ap.jpg
This photo released by Electronic Arts shows a scene from the video game, "Battlefield: Hardline." Electronic Arts is testing its latest "Battlefield" game at E3. The video game publisher launched the beta test for "Battlefield Hardline" at the conclusion of its presentation at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the game industry's annual trade show, on Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Electronic Arts)

WASHINGTON -- As video game makers unveil new and improved titles at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, some parents might wonder how to navigate the increasingly complicated playing field.

Upcoming games such as "Battlefield Hardline" from Electronic Arts trade war-torn locales for cops-and-robbers simulations in familiar urban settings. These lifelike shoot-em-up thrillers might provide hours of entertainment for gamers, but should parents be concerned about their content?

Neil Bernstein, a D.C.-based clinical psychologist and author of "How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble," says yes.

"It's not necessarily that the games are getting worse. It's that the occurrence of bad things is proliferating," he says.

"More and more kids are tuning into [this kind of entertainment] and there's a lot of violence and aggressive content out there. But it's important to keep in mind that aggressive content does not turn good kids into ax murderers."

Bernstein, who specializes in teen and pre-teen psychology, adds that as technology pushes the boundaries of reality, more parents are becoming worried about the potential affects video games, TV shows and movies have on their children.

"Parental concern is on the upswing exponentially," he says. "I'm hearing more and more concern from parents on the issue."

A recent study in Singapore evaluating 3,000 kids between the ages of 8 and 17 showed that those participants who admitted to playing violent video games frequently were more likely to exhibit aggression later in life.

But critics of the study say researchers didn't factor in parental involvement when evaluating the subjects, and that other factors could be contributing to violent or antisocial behavior.

Psychologist Angela Fletcher, of the Children's National Health System, says that if a child displays aggressive tendencies, playing violent video games could worsen their behavior.

"We always tell parents to read the ratings on the game, go to the entertainment software rating board and look it up," Fletcher says.

Bernstein agrees.

"Aggressive content -- violent content -- kind of fuels the flames of kids who are more likely to do stuff and be negatively affected" by certain material, he says.

He advises parents to pay close attention to game ratings and reviews. He also suggests visiting websites that evaluate video games. Parenting.com, for instance, compiled a list of 10 Violent Video Games to Avoid. They include "Dead Space 2," "Call of Duty: Black Ops" and "Halo: Reach."

Most of these games include a disclaimer warning of "mature" content and recommending that players be at least 18 years old.

For younger gamers and their parents, more benign options can offer an opportunity for families to spend time together, says Rich Taylor, of the Entertainment Software Association.

In a May column on Huffington Post, Taylor says "games foster interaction and connectivity, and unite friends, families and neighbors."

He says, "Today, 62 percent of gamers play games with others, either in-person or online, demonstrating the strong social appeal of shared entertainment experiences."

Taylor notes that 42 percent of parents play video games with their children weekly. An additional 56 percent of parents say some games are a positive addition to their child's life.

Several family-friendly games are being revealed at this year's E3 expo. Sony premiered "Abzu," an undersea odyssey from the creators of the award-winning "Journey" and "Entwined," a psychedelic 3-D flying game. Sony also showcased new installments of the popular video-game franchises "Uncharted" and "LittleBigPlanet" to the PlayStation 4.

"Video games have evolved into a mass medium that helps people communicate, connect, and share knowledge and experiences," Taylor says.

The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that their involvement will ultimately make the difference between a child who is adversely affected by violence in video games and one who isn't, Bernstein says.

"Parents need to know what their kids are watching," he says. "Sometimes, despite the kids' protest, we need to do what's right and ask what they're doing or do a little research on what they're viewing."

Some guidelines:

Do your research: Check ratings and reviews before buying a new game.

Don't walk away: Pay attention to what games your child is playing and consider playing with them.

Golden rule: "I often tell kids, 'If you have to hide something from your parents, you probably shouldn't be doing it,'" Bernstein says.

Set firm limits: "Parents would be well advised to make sure that they are communicating with their kids and instilling a positive sense of values," Bernstein says. This includes enforcing gaming time limits, monitoring content and encouraging children to share how they are spending their free time.

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