Kristen Elworthy’s 4-year-old showed up to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie decked out in a Mario costume. In fact, he was Mario last Halloween too, so when new Super Mario merch started popping up ahead of the movie release, he and his other preschool friends started asking for more themed clothing.
Elworthy, a mom of three based in Lynnfield, Mass., is all for it. She and her husband share a nostalgia for the “throwback elements” the Super Mario comeback brings.
“For Christmas, my kids got a Nintendo Switch and I think one thing that all of them have gotten into is playing games with their dad — who may enjoy it more than them,” says Elworthy, whose kids range in age from 4 to 10. “My [4-year-old] son is definitely the most into the Mario merchandise, but all three will play the video games.”
Elworthy’s is one of many families who has a preschooler in love with Mario and Princess Peach thanks to the box office success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, not to mention the film’s recent Happy Meal collaboration with McDonald’s. But experts are hesitant about the impact animated video game-based movies might have on influencing kids to start gaming at a young age.
How animated movies might lead to a love of gaming
Dr. Carl D. Marci is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age says the push from gaming companies to get kids interested via movies is “not an accident.”
“The video game industry is very mature, they know how to market their games to adults and children,” Marci says. “This is really about expanding appeal and market share — and it is a reminder of how important it is for parents to realize they are competing with very sophisticated companies with huge budgets.”
Kids don’t start loving Super Mario, or Fortnite characters, or anybody else, their first moment gaming. Instead, they are engaged with the culture surrounding it — the gear and games, the shirts and figurines. “Young kids are drawn to games that feature characters they’re familiar with from movies or shows they already watch, and vice versa,” Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician and the founder and CEO of Modern Mommy Doc, says. “The more exposure they have to a franchise, the more likely they are to want to engage with it often. That means, for young kids, the more they see characters like Mario in animated movies, the more interested they’ll likely be in playing Mario video games.”
Casares has concerns about seemingly innocent movies and merchandise leading to video game addiction later on. “This trend is particularly concerning because it creates a snowball effect when it comes to gaming addiction or obsession. The more kids see of the franchise, the more they want to play the associated video game,” she says. “The more they play the video game, the more addictive it becomes.”
But she notes that video games are OK in small increments, even at younger ages. “But think of it like candy or cake — if that’s all you eat, you’re going to feel sick. Your brain will feel the same way if video games take up all of your time,” Casares warns.
Anna Rollins, says that since seeing the movie, her two kids, ages 4 and 6, have become “huge Mario fans in the past month.”
“We purchased a basic $20 GameBoy and my son plays old-school Mario now,” the Huntington, W.Va.- based mom tells Yahoo Life. “I will be honest and say that I was hoping we could avoid video games a bit longer.”
While Rollins says that her kids’ newfound interest “feels like one more screen battle to have,” she’s encouraged that Super Mario isn’t a violent game and instead requires strategy. “As far as screen activities go, it’s a positive one.”
When to start video games (and related media) with young kids
Dr. Nina Vasan, the founder and executive director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, studies the effects of video games on mental health and well-being.
“It depends on the kid, but overall 4 to 5 years i[old] s the earliest we tend to recommend kids start playing video games,” says Vasan, who also serves as a spokesperson for the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s Campaign for Kids Online Safety. “Certainly, if kids see their friends or older siblings playing, they may become interested at younger ages.”
Vasan also notes that the American Association of Pediatrics says that kids between the ages of 3 and 5 should be limited to one hour per day of media use, including video games, and does not recommend any screen time for kids younger than 2.
Why a love for gaming might have some benefits for kids
Vasan says that she’s seen kids become more curious about playing video games after seeing video game movie adaptations. And, it’s important to remember gaming itself isn’t all bad — in fact, she points to new research showing quite the opposite, including a 2021 study that found that some commercial video games could help mitigate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“Newer research has shown many cognitive, emotional and social benefits,” she says. “From the cognitive perspective, people who play video games have faster attention allocation, higher spatial resolution and the games can help kids develop problem-solving skills. From the emotional perspective, people feel pride after beating a level and playing also helps them deal with adversity and challenges, such as struggling with a particular hurdle in the game and overcoming it. For older kids who are playing collaborative games, research shows social benefits around cooperatively working with others.”
Vasan is careful to add that not all games are beneficial, however.
What parents can do
Both experts point to parents’ specific role in how their kids perceive both animated video game movies, and the video games that go along with them.
“Unless parents are extremely thoughtful about how this type of positive feedback loop will impact their kids (and take steps to limit exposure and gaming time) things can get out of hand pretty quickly,” Casares says.
Vasan recommends the following for parents of young kids who are curious about gaming:
Help children find age-appropriate games. Common Sense Media has an easy-to-use website on choosing the right game for kids based on their age and needs. “It can also be good to play the game with your younger kid,” Vasan says. “Download it and test it out for yourself before letting your child play it.”
Turn online play into offline learning. Parents should find what aspect of the game fascinates their child and look for offline opportunities to engage in the same type of content.
Empower kids to continue other activities and interests alongside video games. Parents should help kids make sure that gaming does not overtake school, sleep or social time with family or friends.
Look for games that have been developed specifically to improve mental health and well-being.
Monitor the time kids spend on devices, as well as other behaviors, to make sure they are not gaming excessively and getting addicted.
If kids become isolated or aggressive, then parents should discontinue video game use. If their behaviors or mood change in ways that are concerning, it is important that parents connect with a pediatrician, therapist or child psychiatrist to evaluate the child’s health and make recommendations.
And parents contemplating a trip to the movie theater can take heart that young kids can still enjoy Mario and Luigi without feeling compelled to pick up a video game controller. (Indeed, they may not even be aware that the video games exist.)
Austin mom Carrie Murphy’s 4 1/2-year-old hasn’t expressed an interest in gaming since first locking eyes on Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. He’s more interested in the character’s career.
“Mama!” he told Murphy a few days after seeing the film. “The Super Mario Brothers are PLUMBERS!”
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