South Charlotte

Group helps parents, kids handle video games

Melanie Hempe never thought her son’s video-game hobby was a big deal.

In fact, she was happy to see him engaged.

But when he left for college, he struggled with classes because he was more concerned with gaming.

“He pretty much gamed too much and came home. He was done,” said Hempe, who lives in Winterbrooke in Matthews. “It took over his life. We got hit pretty hard in our family with this issue.”

Ultimately, her son joined the Army and is stationed at Fort Bragg. Because of that experience, however, Hempe began researching gaming addiction and discovered California author Andrew Doan, a neurosurgeon who wrote “Hooked on Games.”

Hempe said Doan helped her understand the neuroscience behind gaming and how it affects a child’s brain development, which continues until about age 25.

Children sometimes can become addicted to gaming because the activity becomes so deeply enmeshed with the brain’s pleasure center, Hempe said.

Hempe and Doan launched Real Battle Ministries, a nonprofit organization that educates parents on the effect of children’s over-consumption of electronic media. From that, Hempe established the local organization Moms Managing Media.

“The whole goal is to support each other and encourage each other to parent the way your gut is telling you,” Hempe said.

The group meets every first Thursday of the month at Covenant Day School. The meetings are open to all parents.

The group has been hosting educational events for about three years, and often more than 30 people attend, said member Ellen Cotton.

The group’s next meeting will be 9:30-11 a.m. Oct. 2 at Covenant Day. The program, titled “Cellphones and Children,” will help parents determine the best age for their child to get a cellphone. High school counselor Dawn Poulterer will speak.

Cotton said she has experienced the stress technology over-consumption can bring: her 8-year-old son would become a different person when she tried to cut him off from video games, she said.

“He would get downright mean and ugly about it,” she said. “I just realized it wasn’t working in my home and it was causing me too much stress and anxiety.”

Cotton got rid of the video games, and says her son has gotten back into baseball and riding his bike and doesn’t have the kind of tantrums he used to.

Hempe said it’s deceiving to call video games “games” because they end up shaping a person’s values. She said a lot of popular video games are violent and overly sexualized.

Hempe said the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than 2 get only two hours of screen time (phones, computers, televisions) a day.

Hempe said technology also does not allow children to become bored, which is important for creativity.

“There’s nothing hard about technology. It’s easy,” she said. “But when you get bored, you become uncomfortable and you learn new things. Kids need to learn how to play outside, get scratched knees, fall off their bike, figure out their own battles.”

Hempe said females are just as affected as males by electronic media immersion. Some engage in cyber bullying or base their self worth on how many Twitter followers they have.

“It feeds into this natural teenage self obsession and exploits it,” Hempe said.

Jamie Brooks, principal of Community House Middle School, said she’s also seen the negative impacts of technology.

“There’s a danger of being able to say mean things anonymously. You can bully a little bit more easily,” she said. “The biggest thing is the impact it has on their self esteem.”

Still, members of Moms Managing Media are quick to clarify the group is not “anti-technology.”

For instance, Hempe said, there’s great information available for children to learn on the Internet, but the group does think delaying and limiting exposure to technology is more likely to help. They want parents to take control of managing their children’s electronic media consumption.

“I guess one of our big messages for parents is that it is okay not to jump on the technology push when it comes to our kids,” Cotton said.

Brooks said it’s also important for parents to educate their children on “digital citizenship.”

“It’s not a digital footprint anymore, because a footprint in the sand can be lost,” she said. “When you post a selfie of yourself, it’s a digital tattoo. It doesn’t go away. It can be found again. … We need to teach them about Internet safety and etiquette and the right way to behave.”