Research shows more than a quarter of British parents believe their children play too many video games - yet over half say the offending items will feature heavily in their kids' Christmas lists. Play experts discuss the pros and cons of computer games, and suggest ways parents can steer their children away from consoles this Christmas.
By Lisa Salmon
While train sets and dolls once dominated children's Christmas wish lists, more kids than ever want to find computer games under the tree this year.
New research found more than half (54%) of UK parents were expecting gadgets or computer games to feature heavily on their kids' Christmas lists, compared to 17% who thought board games would be requested.
However, unlike playing with train sets or dolls, there's an element of worry associated with computer gaming - certainly, more than a quarter (27%) of parents of children under 18 surveyed by the toys and games company Hasbro believed their kids played too many video games.
But are parents right to be concerned?
Not if they ensure their kid's computer gaming is done in moderation, says psychologist and play expert Dr Amanda Gummer.
"I think computer gaming isn't as bad as some people fear," says Gummer, founder of the Good Toy Guide (www.goodtoyguide.com).
She warns that of course much depends on the game a child wants to play, and parents should be vigilant about the age ratings on games, as those with older ratings can have adult themes as well as violence.
"Obviously it's a bad idea to let a seven-year-old child play a violent 18-category game. It's about using these games responsibly.
"As part of a balanced play diet, games have their place - they're quite good for reaction speed, strategy and competition, and those kind of things can really benefit kids."
Traditional board games also offer competition and strategy, coupled with real social interaction which computer games often don't have, she says.
"Board games may possibly be better for social development, but they rarely have the need for reaction speed and the high-tech aspect.
"But sitting your child in front of a game console for hours on end and then letting them play computer games and watch TV is not a balanced play diet."
She says parents need to feel confident enough to set boundaries for their children and to enforce them so that kids are only spending a sensible amount of time playing electronic games.
"They need to treat it in the same way as they'd treat their children eating chocolates - parents wouldn't normally let their kids eat a whole box of chocolates in one go."
She suggests that if children don't come when they're called for dinner or don't do their homework, for example, because they're playing on their computer game, restricting the game will teach them about time management and the amount of time it's acceptable to use the game for.
However, she warns against banning computer games outright, explaining: "They become forbidden fruit and it's counter-productive.
"Tell them if they can show they can use the game responsibly, that's fine; but if they can't, then it'll be limited.
"It's just sensible parenting - it's the same with screen time, sweets, whatever it is they do to excess that might impact negatively on the rest of their lives."
She stresses: "The danger comes when kids are using computer games to excess, excluding other types of play and socialising, and being allowed access to material that's age inappropriate.
"Balance it out with other things - it's all about good parenting and managing their use."
Jo Twist, chief executive of the trade body for the video games and interactive entertainment industry UKIE (Association for UK Interactive Entertainment), agrees that while playing games can be an important learning tool, they shouldn't be overused.
"Play is such an important part of learning, but anything that's overdone doesn't make a balanced lifestyle," she says.
"If you watch too much TV or sit around too much, it's the same - everything in moderation."
She stresses that parents can use tools such as parental locks and passwords on consoles, mobile phones and tablets to control how much children use them.
Parents also need to be mindful of the age ratings on games, she says, and even try the games themselves to get more understanding of whether they're appropriate for their child.
The App Store also has ratings and explanations of what's in games, and Twist says parents should make an effort to understand the nature of games their child wants to download.
"You wouldn't let a child watch an 18-rated film, and you need to talk to them about why they shouldn't play 18-rated games as well.
"It's about taking responsibility as a parent."
And it's no excuse for parents to say they simply don't understand the technology, she insists.
"We're living in a digital world now - all kids have access to computers at school, this is the future.
"Consoles and games are really user-friendly, and there's advice out there about them as well."
UKIE runs the advice site www.askaboutgames.com, to give parents advice about choosing games, understanding age ratings and the best way to enjoy games together.
Twist points out: "Sometimes I think parents are worried about being shown up or that they don't know the answer.
"But the manufacturers want these games to be easy to control, and parents shouldn't be afraid to ask questions about them."
She points out that playing games together at Christmas is a great way to spend time together, and that's not just traditional board games - games on Kinect or Xbox Just Dance being just a few of the many examples of games families can play together, she says.
"There are positive aspects to playing as a family - there are strategy games where you're problem-solving as a family, and talking through decisions with your child. That's all part of the learning process - understanding consequences of decisions and strategic thinking is really important in a child's life."
She adds: "There's a real cultural bias against games that are digital, but it's just a different distribution and delivery that offers a different and often much deeper experience."
However, traditional board games are a great way to enjoy social interaction, says Foye Pascoe, UK manager for Hasbro, who stresses: "While online games are a part of daily life, a bit of face-to-face competition is a great way to bring people together during the holidays."
Ask the expert
Q: "My four-year-old son is always saying he's bored, so I let him play with electronic games or watch TV as I'm often too busy to entertain him myself. But I feel guilty about giving in to electronic media - would it be better to just let him be bored?"
A: Dr Richard House of Early Childhood Action, an alliance of early years individuals and organisations set up to influence reforms of early years education, says: "Young children need an adult with whom they can interact and explore the world at this crucial stage of development, and it's important that they're given the opportunity to be physically active, preferably outdoors.
"There can be negative consequences in allowing too much TV or too many computer games and the brain can become abnormally wired by the release of chemicals during these activities.
"Also when children are living in this unreal world, they aren't interacting or having conversations and the development of social, language and empathy skills may suffer.
"For a child to be bored under 'healthy' circumstances can be a good thing. If the child is in a position where he has to use his own imagination and inner resources in thinking of something to do, his creative development will be encouraged.
"He may pick up his toys and enter an imaginary world where he could develop and use all kinds of abstract skills, such as recall, prediction, evaluation, reasoning etc. He may start to draw and as well as developing eye/hand coordination, he may work out problems and see connections with real life. He may read a book or tell a story and despite our wonderful technological world, reading a book is still regarded as the best way to develop the mind.
"If a child has his activities constantly organised for him, he will fail to develop a sense of identity, or in fact many of those skills which will be necessary to him in later life."
Baby's first Christmas
Mothercare Personalised My First Christmas Teddy Bear
A cuddly bear for baby's first Christmas that can have its jumper personalised with baby's name. Order by December 12 for delivery before Christmas. Suitable from birth, £12, available from www.mothercare.com
Ladybird Festive Sleepsuits
A pack of three 100% cotton sleepsuits featuring festive designs, including a red-nosed reindeer and stars. Available in size 0-3 months and 18-24 months, £18, from www.littlewoods.com
TUMTUM Winter Dining Set
Cute festive animals decorate an already gift-wrapped tiny plate, bowl, beaker and cutlery, perfect for that first Christmas dinner. Suitable for ages one to three years, £25, available from www.tumtumtots.com and John Lewis.