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Allies of violence or helpful training aids?

Maureen McTaggart hears different views on the impact of videos and computers.

Tales of possessed children, stripped of their intelligence when lured from their culture and values by a mechanical pied piper, and techno-junkies desperate for their next keyboard high are not elements from a script for a science fiction film, but the fate that awaits today's youngsters if parents do not begin to intervene.

A diet of violent videos and computer games has so desensitised children, that many of them think the most appropriate response to the sufferings of others is laughter. And children "indoctrinated" by electronic games miss out on vital imaginative play while others display symptoms similar to those of heroin addicts.

These were some of the more dramatic claims put forward by psychologists at a conference on children and technology at the National Children's Bureau in London last week.

Professor Elizabeth Newson, whose report last year re-opened the debate on the links between "video nasties" and violence, was pessimistic about the future. She said more violent crimes, such as the murder of four-year-old James Bulger, were inevitable.

She cited cases of a young girl in Norway being kicked to death by three playmates and a five-year-old dropped from a Chicago high-rise car park by a 10 and 11-year-old to back up her arguments "and the latest electronic games with more life-like action and real actors could pose a bigger problem for parents than videos because it is harder for them to oversee every stage," she told the conference.

"Parents tend to look at the first few levels, but some of the most offensive content might be in the last levels of the game which children are better at getting to than parents. We protect children from physical and sexual abuse. But my concern is, here is another source of child abuse where children and parents need help."

Dr Mark Griffiths, from Plymouth University psychology department, also expressed concern about computer games. His research suggested 7 per cent of 12 to 16 year-olds spent more than 30 hours a week playing them. And of those, 1 per cent appeared to be "addicted". But he also told delegates: "Computer games have positive as well as negative aspects. If care is taken in their design, and if they are put into the right context, they have the potential to be used as training aids in classrooms and therapeutic settings."

Children from Graveney School, in south London, who presented their views on computers and videos to the conference, refuted the allegations that their interest is confined to games. They accused adults of being technophobes, more obsessed with the technology than the subjects of their exaggerated fears.

According to 14-year-old Victor John, it will be difficult to stop children using them because they form a relationship with technology from an early age and are comfortable with it. He said: "Computers play a vital role in education and in some ways make the learning environment less threatening."

He added that although they enjoy playing games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter games psychologists claim influence children's behaviour educational programs to help with grammar and spelling were also popular. Moreover, having the use of CD-Roms in school libraries means never paying overdue fees for books or taking long treks to the local library only to find the tome needed is already out on loan.

Their teacher, Lindsay Higton, said the information source was irrelevant; it was what children did with it and how the information tool was integrated that was important. "Not every child has access to encyclopedias, but almost all pupils can go to the school library and use a CD-Rom. What a pupil can or can't do for homework because of a lack of resources will give some an unfair advantage, so it is important a school gives each child equal help."

Mark Allerton, research officer at the London University Institute of Education stressed that it was important to recognise that fiction could frighten children, but that they coped with fear in different ways and could make clear distinctions between fact and fiction in their response to programmes on the television and computer screens from an early age. And contrary to the common stereotype, they did not automatically absorb what they saw.

His research with 70 children between the ages of two and 16 and 20 sets of their parents from contrasting social areas showed that children were upset by horror films but were also terrified by other images, including news items from war-torn areas and crime re-constructions.

Younger children particularly identified with the animals in a cartoon serial called Animals of Farthing Wood, whose habitat is threatened by road development. The older ones recalled having nightmares after watching a fictional Hallowe'en night special broadcast on BBC1 in 1992 because they believed it was real. "Their normal protective mechanisms were not available, so they felt cheated and angry," he said.

He conceded that there was a dark side to human nature, and said that schools should "teach children about the media and its artificial construction", to help them reflect on what they had seen and how it related to their own experiences.

There was no doubt that a small minority of children spent too much time with their electronic nanny, and, said Dr Griffiths, "the question of whether computer games are inherently a 'threat' or a 'therapy' cannot be answered, because the available literature is sparse and conflicting". One thing was certain: "There is a need for a detailed study of classification of the different types of games available, as it could be that particular types have very positive effects, while others are not so positive."

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