“Real Worlds,” Virtual Worlds, and Children

Many kids today don’t understand how to interact with the physical world around them very well. They’re so deeply immersed in the “virtual world” – i.e. TV, video games, and computers – that they’ve come to be more comfortable with aspects of the virtual world than the physical world.


This is a very troubling trend. It was a problem even decades ago when I was a kid, before video games and personal computers. I remember a classic argument I had with my older sister when I was about five. I was absolutely convinced that the songs by the “Archies,” a television cartoon rock group, were actually sung by the cartoon figures on TV. She had the audacity to claim that real human beings sang those songs with real musical instruments, and that those cartoon characters were just drawings created by humans.

Of course, it’s absolutely fine for children to like cartoon characters, but new media can make them so real that children can confuse who’s real and who’s virtual. If a child doesn’t understand who’s real, and that real people are the foundation of our lives, that’s a problem.Today, as virtual worlds become more “immersive,” older and older kids, or even adults, would have the same problem that I had with the Archies. In fact, in Second Life, the community of mostly adults there is transacting over $1 million dollars per day of real money. At some point before, they convert their US Dollars into “Linden Dollars,” and then they use these Linden Dollars to buy things in Second Life, mostly “real estate” that is, well, not real.

I’m OK with adults escaping the real world if they want because I believe in free will for adults, but before they become adults, children should understand that our physical world is primary. They must be raised to be very comfortable with the real world around them. The virtual world must remain an accessory of, not a substitute for, the real world.

Talking to other people in person is far more valuable for a child than chatting with others online. Building a tree fort in the woods is far more valuable than building a “Sim City” in a video game. Playing a baseball game is far more valuable than watching one on TV.

The list could go on for a while. Practically any real, authentic experience – i.e. an experience in our physical world – is better for a child than its virtual substitute.

You might say, “Not my child. She/he isn’t one of those antisocial nerds.” Well, does your child need a DVD or a video game or a computer to be content inside your house if you’re not entertaining him or her? Can she/he find fun outside in your neighborhood or in the woods without the help of an adult?

For many, if not most American parents, the answers to these questions would be “no.” For this reason, my wife and I, like many other parents, are strictly limiting our children’s access to TV, video games, and computers. In fact, to date, our oldest, a 3-1/2 year-old boy, has had practically zero access to them.

We have made one important exception: I shoot videos and edit them on my computer as a hobby, and I have my son “help” me. So, he’ll know the basics of how to create a video before he’s watched much TV.

Our prohibiting TV, video games, and computers might seem extreme to some parents, but I would argue that it’s no more extreme than prohibiting children from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. For my wife and me, these virtual worlds can be as harmful to our children as alcohol or cigarettes.

As they get older, we look forward to watching movies with our children and sharing a glass of wine with them, perhaps at the same time.

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One Response to “Real Worlds,” Virtual Worlds, and Children

  1. Quartz says:

    While I agree games can be harmful if abused I think gaming can actually benefit ones childrens ability to adapt, react, and solve puzzles/problems in real time. Some games that don’t stimulate children aren’t ideal and pure violent games, but games that mix in fun and creative thinking should not be overlooked.