A Psychology Professor and Mom on the Benefits of Pokemon Go

Parents fearing that their children don’t get enough outdoor exercise may welcome the new Pokemon Go craze.  There are a number of potentially positive consequences to this new fad, not the least of which is they have to go outside and move around to play.

My kids and thousands of others are actually out and about, sharing and interacting in the real world, a non-virtual one!  We’ve learned that children with anxiety, autism and even those with a general distaste for being outdoors are enjoying being out and being social.

For those who don’t know, Pokemon Go, derived from the Pokemon trading cards of the late 1990’s, allows players to capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon, who appear on device screens as though in the real world. It makes use of GPS and the camera of compatible devices.While parents should always exercise caution whenever their children play in busy areas – they should make sure they're careful when crossing streets and wandering about – I believe we may be seeing the beginning of a trend away from indoor activities.

Here are some best practices for parents with children playing Pokemon Go:

  • Take the walks and adventures with your child as an opportunity to engage in values-based conversation. As you hunt, share stories about the first time you went to this location, or add items to the hunt. ("Let's see what this plaque says about this monument." Or, "Let's say hi to the neighbor we spotted.") These conversations not only bring you closer together, but show your child that winning and collecting may not be as important as being part of something bigger than them.
  • Be safe. When my children go out, we use the opportunity to be outside together, with me acting as their eyes and ears. As we come to a street, I say, “Let’s put the phone down. Check both ways. Anything coming? Okay, which direction do you want to take now?” If we're in a park and I see them heading toward pavement, I say their name, ask them to stop, and ask them to look for cars or bicycles. You might require someone to be a spotter (who isn't looking at their phone) while another child is in control of the Pokemon Go game.
  • Set healthy limits, both to protect your data charges and to help kids understand that there are other things to do with leisure time that might also be worthwhile. Since taking walks with the phone turned on can help you earn points, you might plan regularly scheduled walks without actively playing the game.
  • Use the game to exhibit manners. When a signal came up suggesting a character was about to appear on our neighbor's lawn, we stopped and considered where we were, whether we could get permission to be there, and what we would do if this wasn't a house we knew well. Actively narrating the decision as you wrestle with it, helps children problem-solve when they are out on their own.
  • If you have more than one child, try to rotate who gets to hunt, so no one child becomes "expert" to the exclusion of others. This helps them work as a team and reduces rivalry.
  • Parents can research the game and technology to help as questions and challenges arise and then engage your children.  I went through a list of questions when my son wanted to evolve a character I had captured – does it cost anything, can it be undone, what happens next, who sees this activity? Some questions we couldn't answer ourselves, so we did some research together online and found answers to facilitate our decisions.

The real opportunity with this phenomenon is the chance to explore the world together, to learn from one another, and to engage in our broader community. Note that children's capacity to learn and remember arcane rules is probably better than yours, so seeking their advice while confirming for yourself will be helpful.

Children 5th grade and up probably have the capacity to explore familiar areas on their own, although the idea of a two-person team, one acting as a safety spotter, is a good idea. Teaching the value of teamwork and taking turns has many benefits even beyond Pokemon Go. Children younger than 5th grade can be part of a parent team.

Finally, if you want the benefits of this game without the technology, there are always the good old-fashioned scavenger hunts and geo-caching games that have been fun and popular for many years.

Dr. Brady, a psychology professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, is co-director of the Media Engagement and Developmental Impact Lab at Saint Anselm.  She is also a licensed clinical psychologist and parent.