MMO Family: How soon is too soon?

MMO Family  How soon is too soon
You might recognize the pictures above and in the body of the article. The first is from a video of a baby using an iPad while still in a walker. The other is from a viral video that came out a while back showing a baby trying to interact with a magazine as if it were an iPad. A quick search reveals the fact that this is growing more and more common. It's an interesting vignette of how much the digital culture has woven its way into our lives, but it also makes you pause and consider whether it's OK for an infant to already be "plugged in."

There are many questions about how early we should introduce children to the variety of devices out there and how soon we should let them start playing video games. And when it comes to MMOs, the issues become even more complicated. How soon is too soon? Let's explore the topic in this week's MMO Family.

A three-hour tour

When I was young, the debate didn't center around computers and video games; it was all about the effects of TV on kids. In fact, some friends and family members made the choice to raise their kids with either a limited exposure to TV or a complete ban on it entirely. Did TV "rot our brains" and cause us to grow up desensitized to violence? Now that we're all grown up, I'd like to think that we all emerged OK, with the only difference that they missed out on some awesome episodes of Gilligan's Island and Scooby Doo.

For all the cheesiness of shows like Knight Rider and Chips, we learned the important lessons that A) too much TV is no good and B) what we see on TV isn't real. That might sound obvious, but it made it easier to sleep at night knowing Ponch and John weren't really hurt in the cliffhanger episode. It also meant we weren't so attached to the TV that we neglected other activities. In fact, TV brought sports and famous athletes right into our family room and inspired us to go outside and copy their feats.

I think there's a parallel between the issue of TV during our childhood and the issue of digital media today. And the two lessons -- moderation and distinguishing reality from fantasy -- apply equally today. Is it bad for an infant to watch an app that flashes pictures and words? Perhaps not, and in a way, it's very similar to watching a Baby Einstein video or a Baby's First Words book. But I think the key is that the digital device shouldn't replace a book, just as a doodle app shouldn't replace markers and paper and a video game shouldn't replace board games and sports. There are similarities in what they all present and teach, but I think there are also differences in how kids interact with them and the experiences they take away at the end. Maybe that's why the video of the infant trying to manipulate the magazine like an iPad is a little worrisome.

MMO Family  How soon is too soon
MMOs are a blur

It's one thing to let a toddler play a Winnie the Pooh game on the computer, but exposure to MMOs is a completely different story. You can get a pretty good handle on whether a video game is appropriate just by looking over the game box for a few minutes. There are many more points to consider when screening an MMO for kids, like game content, chat, and game culture. In fact, an MMO with multiple servers can have completely different communities from one server to another. The lines are much more blurred because the human element is hard to predict, so there's not always an easy answer. Because of that, it's best to be cautious and go slowly when it comes to introducing MMOs to children.

But measured exposure over time, paced in a way that matches kids' development, can actually be a good thing. There are things that kids learn from playing MMOs that they can't learn in single-player games. And in many cases, they're lessons that carry over to social media, which is ever-creeping into our culture. At some point, as kids grow up, they will be introduced to an online world, whether it's World of Warcraft, Facebook, or something else that we've yet to see. If they're armed with lessons like moderation, cautious skepticism, and an ability to separate fantasy from reality, they'll be better off in the long run.

At the same time, it seems as if we're only beginning to understand how digital media, video games, and even MMOs affect children's development. Do they increase impulsivity and decrease attention spans? Or do they help children with dyslexia learn to read? Do they increase aggression, or are they an important tool in therapy and recovery? Do they stunt learning, or do they actually redefine it in a good way?

The fact that there are so many unanswered questions makes it understandable for a parent to choose not to introduce video games to children at all. And I think we can all agree that even if parents allow their kids to play, there should be some concrete rules on what they play and how long they're playing, with an emphasis on the fact that it should never replace real-life activities. One family might have completely different rules than another, but the fact that each has taken the time to weigh the factors and think things through means a lot more than any rigid black-or-white solution.

What do you think? At what age should children first be able to use devices like phones or tablets to play games or apps? What about video games on computers and consoles? And what's the best age to introduce children to MMOs? Let's hear your thoughts below.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.