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Handheld gaming consoles equal a quiet back seat and getting the dishwasher emptied

They hide it under the covers and sneak it into their school bags. They flip it open when you aren't looking. And when they aren't playing, they are intently strategizing about the games with their friends, speaking in a seemingly foreign language about how to find legendary Pokemon characters, like the elusive Kyogre.

If you have a tween boy in your house, chances are that charging in an outlet somewhere, there's also a Nintendo DS, the ubiquitous handheld gaming console. It's the joy toy of the young male mind, a gift for a quiet back seat on long road trips. And more often than parents might like to admit, a brilliant carrot for getting the dishwasher emptied. Parents may debate how much time they should spend on it, but it also becomes a handy device for policing behaviour: a threatened DS ban, moms confess, is a strong incentive.

"If he gets out of line, or in trouble at school, that's what he loses. It works," says Allison Tompkins, a doctor in Florenceville, N.B., whose 11-year-old son, Sam, is officially only allowed to play his DS on weekend mornings.

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Jo-Anne McGurk calls it her "incentive plan." When her 13-year-old son, Avery, does his homework and chores without complaint, he gets more game time. "If the attitude seemed to be sliding, it got taken away," says Ms. McGurk, who works at an accounting firm in Mission, B.C. "Pretty soon, it was almost a driving force of homework and positive behaviour, because he loved to play."

Despite what other parents claim on the playground, parents such as Ms. McGurk believe kids are all playing on their consoles more often than anyone likes to admit. Once the homework's done and a sunny afternoon has been spent outdoors, "it becomes really hard to lay down excuses why they can't play it," she says. "I think it's the way of their childhood."

But while the DS can be an effective "inspiration" for good behaviour - and even teach some positive social skills - researchers also say that parents need to be careful about how much it gets used and what's playing on the screen. Kids, and especially boys, are playing electronic games more than ever, and according to one recent U.S. study, only about half of parents set limits. Even then, those who do admit it's easy to lose track.

"If you say well, you can do it in the car, but you are always in the car, and then you go home and watch a movie, that adds up," says Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a non-profit watchdog that reviews video games. "You only have a certain number of hours a day, and kids need to be actually engaged in the world."

A study released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the United States found that 65 per cent of 8- to 10-year-olds had their own handheld game player. On average, those same kids spent about 25 minutes a day playing them - the highest use of any age group. (That's in addition to the time they spend on the computer and other video-game consoles, which altogether added up to nearly two hours a day, though older teenagers still had higher media use overall.) Among those kids, only 54 per cent said their parents set rules about which games were allowed, and 45 per cent said their parents controlled how long they played.

If the attitude seemed to be sliding, [the handheld game console]got taken away. Pretty soon, it was almost a driving force of homework and positive behaviour, because he loved to play. Jo-Anne McGurk, Mission, B.C mom

Letting those rules slide - however fraught with tension they may be - is a mistake, says video-game researcher Elizabeth Vandewater, who works at RTI International, an independent research institute based in North Carolina. More recent studies suggest that video games aren't a problem on their own - they have been shown to improve hand-eye co-ordination, and games requiring co-operation and sharing may also encourage those same behaviours in the real world.

But on the flip side, violent video games have been linked to aggression. In one experiment, performed by researchers at Iowa State University - and recently duplicated on Britain's Super Nanny television show - two groups of boys played either a sport game or a first-person shooting game; when violent news footage was played for the first group, their blood pressure rose. But it didn't change for the second group, suggesting they'd been desensitized to the images.

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Research also suggests the games may affect how players act toward others. In another experiment, university students were asked give a partner a puzzle challenge - partners who solved it earned $10. Students who'd previously played a more co-operative game were more likely to give easier puzzles, thereby helping their partner succeed.

"If your kid is doing well, there's no reason for them not to play games as one of their leisure pastimes," says Dr. Vandewater. But that still means parents have to read labels, and even then do their own research. "You cannot trust the industry to tell you what's appropriate. As a parent, you have to be careful."

And one of the tricky aspects to handheld consoles such as the DS, says Ms. Knorr, who also has a DS-loving son, is how easy it is to play it while doing something else, such as watching television - the kind of split-focus that has been linked, she says, to shortened attention spans and short-term memory issues in children. "Humans are not really cut out for multi-tasking," she says.

At the same time, any parent who has listened in on a intense strategy discussion of Pokemon and Super Mario, can see the social and cognitive benefits behind the games. "I have loved listening to them talking about Pokemon. It seems to be a higher level of conversation," says Dr. Tompkins, who after recognizing the social aspect started bending her rule about preventing Sam from bringing out his game when friends visit. She likes the fact that even his sister, who's 13, often pulls out her own DS to join them.And although Avery has now moved away from Pokemon, Ms. McGurk also recalls those years with a laugh, and the many hours her son spent acting out the game in the backyard with his friends. "It does lead to fabulous imagination," she says.

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