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Does playing video games enhance fine motor skills in children? “No” says a pediatric occupational therapist

As a child development specialist, a frequent question asked by parents, educators, and therapists is “Do video games improve fine motor skills”? Concerns continue regarding long durations children are spending using various technologies, and creating the need to justify high usage rates in homes, schools, and clinical settings is on the rise. Because video games require eye-hand coordination, a logical premise follows that high usage of video games would consequently improve fine motor skill. This premise is somewhat misleading though, as the majority of functional fine motor skills such as printing and reading, have no relation whatsoever to playing video games. Many factors must be taken into account in order to better understand the impact of technology on developing bodies and brains. This article intends to profile critical factors which create foundations for child fine motor development, and how these factors are both positively and negatively affected by video games. Hopefully this information will serve as a guide for parents, educators, and therapists for more judicious use of video games with young children.

Children develop from the core outwards, and achieving gross motor development is essential prior to development of fine motor control. Motor coordination of right side to left side, upper body to lower body, eye to hand, and eye to eye is essential for development of refined motor patterns. Also important is development of spatial awareness and body sense, formed during moving about in three dimensional space. When a child’s body and brain are exposed to lots of movement, they develop a strong and stable core, from which motor coordination follows, enabling functional fine motor development required for getting dressed, opening containers, and upon school entry, for printing and reading. When a child is sedentary and doesn’t move their body, such as when they are playing two dimensional video games, their core cannot get strong, and their body lacks spatial awareness, and functional motor coordination and fine motor development is impaired. So why is it then that children who play long durations of video games seem to have more highly developed visual motor skills than children who don’t play video games? Additional information is needed regarding brain development in order to best understand the impact of video games on fine motor development.

When a baby is born, they have their full complement of neurons or ‘tracks’. By the time the child reaches old age, 2/3 of these tracks will be pruned, based largely on environmental influence. ‘You are what you do’ is an adage which fits appropriately when applied to developing brains and bodies. When children run around outside engaged in social play, there is diverse activation of all parts of their bodies and brains, optimizing development and learning. When children sit sedentary and play video games, their bodies are not used at all, and only a small portion of the brain is activated, an area known for processing ‘stimulus/response’ type actions. As this portion of the brain’s neurons are strengthened, the rest of the brain’s tracks are not used and consequently are effectively pruned in order for the brain to become more efficient. Numerous studies have shown that while visual motor skill needed for operating video games is enhanced with video game play, other fine motor skills, in addition to the brain’s executive cognitive functions, are impaired. ‘Use it or you loose it’ is an apropos statement which explains why one in three children now enter school developmentally delayed with learning difficulties. While they might have achieved fine motor mastery for video games, when asked to pay attention to the teacher, walk slowly across the room without bumping someone, or pick up a pencil and compose a sentence, they are unable to accomplish these most basic skills.

So how do parents, educators, and therapists determine type and duration of video game use to optimize brain and body development? Technology is one of many learning tools, and usage parameters such as age, content, duration, and intensity are key factors in determining exactly what is learned. For example, young children exposed to anti-social, fast paced media content for long durations, exhibit attention deficit and aggression (AAP 2016). On the other hand, youth who use pro-social, slow paced, educational content for short durations, exhibit applied learning and positive behaviors. When children are young, their brains and bodies are undergoing a state of rapid development that requires lots of movement, touch, human connection, and nature. Technology use should never exceed pediatrician recommendations, and should consist of only short duration, pro-social content (see below guidelines). Understanding both the promise and the perils associated with technology usage by children will help society better manage balanced use.

Technology Use Guidelines for Children and Youth

The following Technology Use Guidelines for children and youth were developed by Cris Rowan pediatric occupational therapist and author of Virtual Child, Dr. Andrew Doan neuroscientist and author of Hooked on Games, and Dr. Hilarie Cash, Director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program and author of Video Games and Your Kids, with contribution from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society in an effort to ensure sustainable futures for all children.

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Please contact Cris Rowan at info@zonein.ca for additional information.