I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s with parents who strictly controlled my “screen time,” which back then meant almost exclusively TV, as well as a pocket game that died when I was 10 and was never replaced. Like many in my generation, I absorbed the general feeling that video games, like television, were frivolous mental rot.
Now my two sons, ages 12 and 13, are growing up in a digital world like I didn’t. His generation lives online, spending more hours in virtual spaces since the pandemic began.
I’m lucky: My kids are hardworking and kind to their chronically exhausted single mom. They make raising them as easy and joyful as adolescence could allow.
But still, our house rules about video games are arbitrary and our disputes about them are constant. No amount of yelling “No games on school nights!” or “Not before dinner!” has it worked, or did it inspire them to learn a new skill instead.
I feel like I’m flying blind when it comes to regulating the use of their games and I know I’m not alone. Many parents worry that they should do more to limit online gambling.
But as I’ve learned from talking to numerous experts—psychologists, game designers, and researchers—the impact of video games is more nuanced than other types of screen time, like social media. In fact, some research shows that it can have positive effects, such as promoting problem solving or teamwork and communication.
These are the views and advice of these experts on how to maximize the benefits of games and protect children from potential dangers.
Video games are different from other screen times in crucial ways and have some benefits.
“Screen time” is an outdated concept. Children study, play video games, use social networks and watch videos on screens, but not all have the same impact on development. Video games don’t, in fact, show the kind of negative behavior or emotional effects that researchers correlate with social media use, says Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and community director for Take This, a mental health advocacy group within from the gaming community.
“Research has shown time and time again that time spent playing video games does not predict mental health outcomes,” she says.
One reason for the difference in impact may be that social media is mostly about marketing or comparing yourself to others, while gaming is generally about socializing with friends, solving a puzzle, or entering a competition.
In fact, says Dunlap, parents often overlook some of the benefits of games: “It’s a tool. You can use games to improve your social connection, to practice emotions that we normally avoid, like guilt, hurt, or sadness.” shame. A lot of games bring out those feelings in us, and give us a space to play with those feelings.”
Games that involve joint projects like a battle or a quest can help develop useful social skills, says Peter Etchells, a research psychologist at Bath Spa University in the UK. “It requires very precise team building,” he says. “It requires thinking about timing and location and good communication skills to coordinate with people. It’s doing that kind of coordinated work that’s really useful for all sorts of things.”
Help kids prioritize offline activities so they aren’t subsumed by gaming
Kids need some limits on their play, especially if it starts to crowd out other essential or healthy activities, many experts warn, such as schoolwork and sleep in particular.
“Screen time is a hard thing to quantify,” says Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Media and Children’s Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “What’s easier to quantify, and probably more in line with what’s optimal for development, is to quantify screen-free time.”
He advises parents to be careful that family meals, homework, and outdoor or in-person play are not included in playtime.
Kids also benefit from having periods of less stimulation, away from technology, Rich says. “I want to bring boredom back,” Rich argues, because that can also lead to imaginative play.
You need to start playing with your children
Every expert I spoke to recommended playing video games with your child to find out what specifically might motivate them to play: the needs that the game might satisfy for them.
Online chess, for example, is a different experience than a multiplayer game with friends. Shy children may find it easier to socialize in games. Another child might consider it a stress reliever. Some children may use games as a place to escape or process a difficult situation.
Boston Children’s Rich says that most of the things parents worry about with games—stranger danger, violence, sexuality—can be addressed simply by exploring the game through their eyes.
“What’s happening is you’re saying, ‘I love you, I respect you, I want to understand what’s involved here,'” Rich says. “You’re going into that space with a very different stance, essentially that of the student. You’ll get a sense of what the game is about.”
If you’ve noticed your kids yelling or crying over something that happened in a game, don’t be upset, experts say. A child’s reactions to emotions and interpersonal dynamics are real, even if the game itself takes place virtually or on a device. Experts say outbursts during play don’t mean your child is more likely to act violently in real life.
Video games are like other spaces where your children spend time. Ask yourself: Is it safe? Who else is there?
Games are social spaces, good or bad things can happen there, just like in real life. Think of the games your kids play as another kind of space where you let them hang out, several experts suggested.
For example: if you have a 5-year-old son, you wouldn’t leave him alone in a shopping mall, where strangers might approach him. Now you can drop your teenager off at the mall, but not before discussing who he’s hanging out with, what he plans to do, and maybe an agreement on when to come home for dinner. The same general principles can be applied to adolescents who play.
Parents need to ask: Does gaming culture itself seem to lead to age-appropriate behavior? Games with female characters with exaggerated sexual traits, for example, can subject a child to sexual harassment.
If you don’t like what you’re seeing in a game, remember that outright bans and restrictions tend to backfire on teens. It’s more important to keep the lines of communication open, Dunlap and other experts say, so that if something bad happens in-game, you can help them process or fix it.
Be on the lookout for “dark skins” or skins that fuel the game non-stop
Be on the lookout for certain “dark patterns” or “dark designs” in games, several gaming experts say. These terms refer to software or algorithms written to cause certain negative behaviors in its users.
One of the most common is in-game purchases that can border on extortion, says Max Birk, an industrial design researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “It’s important because it changes the emphasis of game designers,” he says.
Games driven by in-game purchases (as opposed to games you buy up front, like NBA2K or Dance Dance Revolution) tend to have a financial interest in keeping kids engaged for long periods of time. These games make it very easy to start a new game or create great incentives for players to come back.
Birk suggests talking to your kids about game structure and steering them toward games that are more to do with story lines, or have natural endpoints that can allow the child to wind down the game on their own.
Monitor games for toxic culture and harassment.
Toxic culture and commentary can thrive in certain games because parents aren’t monitoring those spaces. That often takes the form of harassing the players. The onus falls on parents of children, especially, to make sure they treat people fairly online and to oppose any sexist or misogynistic speech, says Jesse Fox, a professor of communications at The Ohio State University.
Remind your kids that the rules for respectful behavior apply online just like they do in life. “Gaming culture and gaming norms are going to imprint into their idea of normal behavior, what is acceptable behavior,” Fox says. That’s why it’s critical for parents to monitor that play space: Listen to conversations Please keep the screen in public view.
Find the spaces that are safest and most inclusive by design. Fortnite, Fox notes, is an example of a game that has such a diversity of characters in the game, because it’s trying to appeal to a very broad audience. That diversity makes it harder to distinguish players by race or gender.
Keep an eye out for these red gambling flags
For many children, games can be positive, but it’s a good idea to watch for these signs of problematic game use.
Overspending on games: The financial incentives of the game can be to keep your child engaged and to encourage, even try to coerce, your characters to spend money to advance. Teach your child to recognize these types of tactics and redirect him to games where the game itself is the main focus.
Negative reactions or anxiety about gaming friends: If your child repeatedly has large emotional reactions to the game, check and find out what elements of the game are so upsetting. Then redirect them to games and spaces that don’t have these items. Find single player games to take a break from the social dynamics.
Sleep very little: If your child plays late into the night or gets groggy in the morning, their gaming use could be out of control. Make sure that the child cannot access the games during the whole night. Often it’s not the desire to play the game itself, but social pressure not to miss out on experiences with friends that will keep them online, says UK researcher Peter Etchells. Therefore, turn off other technologies as well, preferably well before bed.
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