Pokemon GO & kids: PokeYES or PokeNO?

As I sit to write this, my legs are aching, my feet are propped up and am remembering a truly enjoyable afternoon chasing monsters around a nearby town. No, I’m not talking about babysitting or taking my kids out for the day – the monsters we chased were Pokemon. This game is taking over, it’s in the news (for good and bad) constantly, and parents everywhere are wondering if it’s ok for their kids. Here’s my perspective; as a counselor, a mother, and a level 20 Pokemon GO trainer.

The one thing about Pokemon GO that I truly love is that it requires kids to get up and  get out. My son, who would rather be home watching TV and playing on the computer or reading, went on a 15 mile bike ride with his friends. Voluntarily! In order to level up in the game you need to be mobile, walking around in order to hatch eggs, and to spot & catch new Pokemon. In an age when most kids are pretty sedentary this is a truly great thing. Walking, or any physical exercise, is a protective factor for many mental illnesses. In fact, one of the first things I do when treating depressed clients is to find a way for them to get moving.

When kids play Pokemon GO they tend to congregate at PokeStops and at PokeGyms. These are places where they can “fight” their Pokemon and get items that will help them on their quest to catch them all. I have seen kids of all ages helping each other out at these locations. I’ve been the older mother who was helped by some younger kids to figure things out. I have seen older kids/young adults take the time to help younger ones find the good Pokemon. It’s usually a great social meshing, and the nature of what they are doing really helps the shyer people to interact socially. This is wonderful, and it gives many kids who struggle with social relationships the chance to try out different social tactics in a low-risk environment. After all, everyone is focused on Pokemon, not hanging out.

There are a few risks with Pokemon GO, which I have seen in the media multiple times, but never in real life. I have read accounts of kids walking into traffic or other dangerous situations because they are not paying attention. To be honest, I can see how this could happen, so this is something to definitely bring up with your kid. Look, then walk! I have read reports of people being attacked at PokeStops/Gyms, and I would warn your kids to keep their eyes open for possible dangers. This is a common sense safety message that is good for kids to hear on a regular basis anyway – they need to be aware of their surroundings and to trust their own judgment.

The biggest risk with Pokemon GO that I have personally experienced is that it’s addicting! This is a game that is masterfully designed along the principles of operant conditioning. Not to drag this discussion into technical talk, but the game is designed to randomly provide reinforcement in the form of new Pokemon and this increases the likelihood that people will continue to play. This is a variable ratio reward system and is known for making a behavior hard to extinguish. In real speak, it’s designed to be addictive. I realized this as I was hunting Pokemon while grocery shopping and waiting at the gas station. Parents (and everyone) need to be aware of this potential and be prepared to step in if it becomes out of hand. Let your kids know in advance the possibility and give them clear limits. And if you’re like me, you need to provide those limits to yourself.

So, you may be asking, is this a game I should let my kids play? Should I play myself? I vote PokeYES! There are some great physical and social benefits (and I will be using this with some of my clients!) and these outweigh the possibilities of the negatives. Of course, I would remind my kids to be aware of both their physical environment and the people around them, and would insist they go with others when wandering around the community – much like anything else.

One last tip – download this and play it WITH your kids. It’s a great chance to do something with them that you will both enjoy. My sons and I have had some great times, and conversations, while out exploring. Use this opportunity to bond with your kids. They’re only little for a short while. These moments are rare – catch them all.





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