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Too much screen time? Parents weigh in on video games

An avatar skydives from a blimp above a large map, into the city of their choosing, and then the game begins. The goal is to survive, pick up as many weapons as you can, and earn v-bucks for even more weapons and new clothes or “skins.”

Along the way, you might learn a few new dance moves.

This is “Fortnite,” a multiplayer video game that blew up in popularity over the past year and has kids and teens begging parents for battle passes and screen time.

“I don’t mind it because they’re not violent games,” said mom of three sons Andrea Pugliese, of the popular third-person shooter game her son loves to play. “The part that I don’t like is trying to force him out of the bed. Weekends he could go all day if I let him.”

Like many parents across the country, Andrea and Dominic Pugliese, of Egg Harbor Township, are asking how much is too much when it comes to video games for their kids.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of teens ages 13 to 17, more than 80 percent have a game console at home and 90 percent play video games on a console, computer or cellphone. The data show video games are more popular among teenage boys.

Researchers have been studying the effect of video games and other screen time on children for a long time and have found myriad negative effects on children’s social and emotional outcomes.

Tech addiction expert and author John Kriger said he is concerned.

“There is increasing research that’s showing that kids who play video games excessively seem to show negative results,” said Kriger, a licensed addiction counselor and Rutgers University faculty member. “Some of the research is even showing that it changes the brain as much as methamphetamine or cocaine can.”

Kriger said the mental stimulation and reward you get playing video games releases dopamine to the brain. He said the effects are exacerbated for children who may have social issues as they can become more socially withdrawn. He also pointed to the current high rates of depression and suicide among teens as an effect of lack of human contact.

Kriger said parents often relay stories of children becoming belligerent when the technology is taken away.

Jessica Galusha, 36, of Galloway Township, can relate. Galusha said she notices that when her kids spend a lot of time on their screens, they are needy, whiny and lazy.

“My guys are always looking for a screen, it doesn’t matter what the weather is,” she said.

Galusha said she limits video game time to one hour per day for her five sons.

Her 5-year-old twins are still playing only on Kindle Fire tablets, but the older boys, ages 7, 11, and 15, all play their own video games, a passion they share with their dad.

“Their father has a real soft heart for video games, because he’s a gamer, too,” said Galusha, a former teacher.

She also restricts her kids from playing games that are violent.

“My opinion is if kids spend that much time in front of a gaming environment, I think they would lose empathy,” she said. “They should be reading, they should be running, they need to do so many other things. When their body is active, their mind is active.”

Meredith Bak, an assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden, said there is always going to be a debate over the good and bad of technology. Bak was dubious of claims of educational benefits from companies trying to market a product, but said the concerns about how kids spend time go back hundreds of years.

“So it’s always good to keep stock about how we’re spending our time, but screen time and video games are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle about how kids spend their time,” she said.

Bak said parents and researchers should also look at other questions like:

What do you actually do in the game?

What sort of interactions are people supposed to have?

What is the overall culture of the game?

What are barriers for people to participate?

Susan Silipena, 55, a mother of two, doesn’t want to give in to letting her kids become gamers.

“They begged and begged and begged for video game systems,” said Silipena, of Galloway.

Her sons, ages 17 and 19, have been gaming since they were young, inspired by a former babysitter’s son whom Silipena described as obsessed with his games.

“It came to a point where if I asked them to do something for me, they stopped playing the game, but their mind is still on the game, so they look at me when I’m talking but then they say, ‘What?’ so they don’t hear me,” she said.

Silipena said there has been an upside: Her sons are both into technology, with her oldest studying electrical engineering and her younger son wanting to get into cybersecurity.

“He built his own computer at age 14. He’s very tech-savvy,” she said, but she still wonders what life would be like if she were more strict.

“It’s all in the perception of the person. I would really love to go back in time and do it again and see what my kids would be like if they weren’t addicted to video games,” Silipena said.

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How rising U.S. tariffs are affecting South Jersey home builders and remodelers

U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods and Canadian lumber have led to price increases on wood and steel used to build South Jersey homes.

The tariffs, a tax on imported goods and services, have not affected all aspects of the building and remodeling industry, though, and where it has, the businesses have passed the cost on to consumers.

The tariffs have had a direct impact on steel products from China, said Mike Ewing, sales manager for Tri-County Building Supplies in Pleasantville.

“Especially in the barrier-islands market, there are a lot of fasteners, hold-downs and all types of things that are made of steel because there is the potential for high winds, so those products have gone up, and they continue to rise,” Ewing said. “Things like hinges on doors have gone up. Anything with metal in it, the prices have gone up.”

Ewing has seen increases of up to 25 percent on some steel products.

In November 2017, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced an average of 21 percent tariffs on Canadian timber products entering this country.

President Donald Trump then put $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods in August, followed by another 10 percent levy on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods in September. The tariff percentage is set to rise to 25 percent by the end of this year.

The list of goods imported from China that are subject to tariffs totals 6,000, but more than 460 are used in home construction and remodeling, said David Logan, director of tax and trade policy analysis for the National Association of Home Builders.

“It’s certainly not too soon for businesses to be feeling it themselves,” Logan said. “Just from talking to our builder members, they started to get price increase notices from certain suppliers back in the middle of summer in anticipation of the tariffs taking effect.”

The G-20 meeting of the world’s developed economies takes place from Friday and Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Trump and the Chinese president will meet and possibly put an end to the proposed tariff increase.

Ben Peter, vice president of Peter Lumber in Pleasantville, said his prices rose on cedar wood from Canada earlier this year.

“We did see increased costs that were passed along to the consumer, but it was nothing horrendous,” said Peter, who added this is more due to supply and demand than tariffs. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so much more expensive. I am not going to buy it anymore.’”

Peter said plywood prices have increased 5 percent to 10 percent.

“Materials have been at historic highs for the past six to eight months,” Peter said.

Michael Dayer, division manager of modular homes for SJ Hauck Homes, a custom modular home builder in Egg Harbor Township, said he’s not sure the market has seen the full effect of tariffs yet. While prices did rise last spring, that could have been due to the economy heating up more than the tariffs.

“A lot of it has to do with all of the natural disasters, which creates stress on that supply-and-demand chain, and I think that’s where a lot of the increases were last spring,” Dayer said. “I’m sure that there is another increase coming at the end of this year because the tariffs have got to sooner or later hit. They have to.”

Nuclear subsidy program given green light by BPU

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved a Zero Emission Credit program last week for nuclear power plants that will close within three years without financial help from ratepayers.

It also approved an application process for nuclear plant owners and immediately opened the application window, which will close Dec. 19, according to BPU.

Electric utilities will charge ratepayers an extra $0.004 per kilowatt hour if a subsidy is approved, and pass the money to the nuclear plants. That will amount to about $31 to $41 per year for the average residential ratepayer, according to estimates. It’s expected to raise up to $300 million for the plants, which some environmentalists are calling a waste of money that could be spent on alternative energy development for wind and solar.

The nonprofit Clean Water Action criticized the board after the vote.

“This turkey was baked before Thanksgiving,” said Amy Goldsmith, N.J. state director of Clean Water Action. “Independent third-party experts were denied critical information, and ratepayer advocates’ and grid operators’ advice was ignored.”

Clean Water Action also said BPU’s definition of clean energy ignored radioactive waste, radioactive emissions, thermal pollution, excessive water diversions and other environmental costs of nuclear plants.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in May that required the BPU to set up such a program, to help maintain the state’s nuclear energy supply.

The state’s three remaining reactors in two plants in Salem County contribute about 32 percent of the state’s electric capacity, the largest source of carbon-free energy for the state, according to BPU. Before the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township closed in September, 40 percent of New Jersey’s energy came from nuclear power.

PSEG, which owns the Salem plants, has said it will close soon without subsidies because of competition from cheap natural gas plants.

Joseph F. Accardo Jr., deputy general counsel and chief regulatory officer for PSEG, said at a BPU hearing in Atlantic City last month the company’s detailed financial records will show that the Hope Creek, Salem 1 and Salem 2 nuclear plants will close within three years without the subsidies. They are licensed through 2036, 2040 and 2046, respectively, according to the company.

The board said it will conduct a thorough and extensive application process, and that nuclear generating stations applying for ZECs must demonstrate “a clear need for these credits, ensuring ratepayer funding is allocated appropriately.”

A list of those eligible to receive ZECs, including their ranking, will be presented to the board for approval at its April 19, 2019, agenda meeting, a board spokesman said. Only those nuclear generating facilities that have sufficiently demonstrated a need for ZECs will receive the credits.

To determine eligibility, applicants must answer questions and provide supporting documents, studies, certifications and/or narratives, according to the board. They also must be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission through 2030, demonstrate a significant and material contribution to New Jersey air quality, demonstrate anticipated plant shutdown within three years due to its financial situation and certify that the facility does not receive subsidies from other entities or agencies.

Bridgeton auto dealership twice burned by state report

Three years after a state report exposed the illegal behaviors of a sector of the used-car business, including the New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall in Bridgeton, they’re still havens for scams and deceitful practices, according to a report published Tuesday.

The State Commission of Investigation published a follow-up to its 2015 report on multidealer locations, or MDLs, and the preferential treatment they received from the state Motor Vehicle Commission, finding the state’s used car industry “remains a refuge for dealers who engage in deceitful, and in some cases, unlawful activity including schemes that harm consumers.”

Several calls to the New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall, as well as emails to employees listed on their website, for comment were not returned.

The report also “revealed that not only has this problem‐plagued business model grown since the SCI’s initial report in 2015, but that dealerships based at these entities continue to participate in illicit conduct, including tax evasion, insurance fraud and an improper black market in dealer credentials.”

There were 19 MDLs in the state as of November 2017, up from 11 when the first study was done, according to the report. At these locations, multiple entities lease space from a single landlord to allow them to have a base of operations in New Jersey — often to avoid stricter regulations in neighboring states, the report concluded.

The 2015 report described the New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall in Bridgeton as “a sham enterprise that enabled rampant dealer abuses ranging from consumer and bank fraud to tax evasion and money laundering.” The 2018 report cited the business again.

“The report is a waste of paper,” said Louis Civello Jr., owner of the New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall, when The Press of Atlantic City interviewed him after the 2015 report was released. At that time, he also denied the report’s allegations of his ties to organized crime.

The new report cites a buyer who purchased a 2005 Nissan Altima for $3,200 from two brothers in White Plains, New York, whose dealership was registered at the auto mall. After the engine blew out on Interstate 95 four days later, the buyer was unable to file a court claim in New York because the dealer was registered in New Jersey, and police in Bridgeton didn’t investigate the matter because the sale had taken place in New York.

In another instance, a New York couple paid $4,500 to purchase a 2005 Volvo XC90 from a New Jersey-licensed dealer doing business in the Bronx, New York, but were issued five temporary tags before getting a title three months after the purchase.

“Prompted by the couple’s complaint, an MVC inspector visited the dealership’s NJDAM rental office in Bridgeton and cited it for numerous violations, including improperly issuing more than one temporary tag for the same vehicle and failing to conduct business from its licensed location,” according to the report. “Following the issuance of a March 2016 MVC violations report, the dealer’s license was suspended for five days and the owner was charged a $200 license restoration fee.”

Too often, dealers at MDLs have been exempt from the same oversight that is standard for other types of dealerships in New Jersey, the report found. It attributed part of this to lobbying efforts on behalf of the dealers by a former head of the predecessor to the current Motor Vehicle Commission.

The report recommended stronger legislation to protect consumers. It noted that New Jersey’s “lemon law” does not cover vehicles sold for less than $3,000 or that are more than seven years old or have been driven more than 100,000 miles. It also doesn’t cover cars sold “as is,” where defects are the buyer’s responsibility.

“Once again, the commission found dozens of instances in which consumers spent thousands of dollars for vehicles that in some instances turned out to be thinly disguised piles of junk,” according to a news release that accompanied the report. “In most cases, consumers were unable to recover costs or obtain refunds because the transactions were ‘as is’ sales that, under New Jersey law, require the customer to cover all repair costs.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.