Video games are here to stay. And with virtual reality headsets, deeper story lines and upgraded graphics, they’re even more habit-forming than ever before. However, the challenge remains the same: How do you know when it’s too much, and how do you regulate usage?
Video games are not all good or all bad, and playing doesn’t always lead to a problem. Here are some things to think about and some tips for handling this common parenting challenge.
In 2018 the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” as a diagnosable health condition. According to WHO, “A diagnosis of gaming disorder is appropriate for a person who, over a period of at least 12 months, lacks control over their gaming habits, prioritizes gaming over other interests and activities, and continues gaming despite its negative consequences.” However, many parents don’t need to wait an entire year to know that video games are having a negative effect on their child’s life.
According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN, “Parents don’t need a diagnosis to make changes.” Harlow-Parker adds, “Gaming is a problem when it gets in the way of your child’s functioning. If they are not doing well in school, if their sleep is affected, if they are spending more time on video games than taking care of their homework, physical appearance, those sorts of things—that’s when the flag for addiction comes up.” At the same time, there are children (and adults) who could have a gaming addiction while still being successful in other areas of their lives. In any case, licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW, urges parents to “help your children set healthy limits, encourage them to try lots of different activities and make quality family time a priority.”
If you think gaming is more important to your child than their health, their friends, their schoolwork, etc., they need your help.
If you think your child’s life is being negatively impacted by video games, you may want to consider setting limits around content (for example, are violent games OK?), frequency and time. But, do so thoughtfully. You’re not just setting limits to set limits. You’re doing it to help your child practice good habits that will serve them well for their whole life.
Here are some things to consider when deciding what limits to set:
- How will your child’s current gaming habits affect their short- and long-term health? What happens when gaming keeps them from being active?
- How much time is your child spending on gaming per week? Is the amount of time they spend gaming impacting their life?
- What types of games are they playing? Are they age-appropriate?
Ultimately, says Baumstein, “You need to do what works best for you and your family. You might consider spending time playing with your child to see if the games are appropriate. It’s a great way to learn from each other and better understand why your child is so interested in the game. Who knows? Maybe your child thinks it’s cool you want to know more about something they care so much about.”
If your child loves playing video games, chances are they're not going to be happy when you start limiting how much time they can spend gaming or managing which games are OK to play (see tip below about video game ratings). But while it’s not always easy being the bad guy, the fact of the matter is: Playing video games is a privilege, not a right.
Here are some ways you can limit gaming in your home:
- Create a “no gaming in the bedroom” policy.
- Do not allow gaming at the dinner table or 1 hour before bed.
- Require your child to ask permission before turning on or downloading a game.
- Limit gaming time to 30 minutes on weekdays and 1 hour per day on the weekends.
“Kids crave consistency,” says Baumstein. “It makes them feel safe and secure. If one day you say ‘Go ahead and play for 5 hours,’ your child is going to expect the same thing the next day. If every day there is a different consequence or limit, not only do they not know what to expect, but they will probably keep pushing you on it.”
In addition to setting and enforcing gaming limits, here are a few more ways you can help manage your child’s video game habit:
- Avoid using video games as a reward. It sends the message that video games are OK and a part of everyone’s everyday life. Again, playing games is a privilege. It should not be connected to the things a child should do as a student or a part of a family, such as earning good grades or doing chores.
- Help your child find other hobbies or ways to spend their time. When a child isolates themself from peers or social events, that could be a problem. Even if your child plays online with friends, it’s not a good enough substitute for being face-to-face with friends and socializing. Harlow-Parker says, “The danger we have with this technology is that it’s not an actual human interaction. It doesn’t teach us how to go up to someone and talk to them. The non-verbal part is such an important part of communication.” So encourage activities like sports, dance, community social events and even reading books as a way to balance time away from screens.
- Teach your child smart online gaming safety. Ask your child if they personally know the people they are interacting with online. And tell your child to never ever share their real name or personal information in video games. Some games allow real-time chats, others do not. Find out how your child uses the games they play.
- Watch your own screen time and gaming. Harlow-Parker says, “We cannot set limits with the child when the parent is playing games for 12 hours a day.” This seems obvious, but if a child sees you playing multiple hours a day, it sets the example for them that it’s OK. And it makes your limits seem unrealistic and unfair.
- Know game ratings, and use them. Not all games are appropriate for all ages or families. Video games sold in the United States all carry a rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that ranges from appropriate for Everyone (E) to Adults Only (AO). Look at these ratings to help you decide whether the content is appropriate for your child. And if you believe that it isn’t, you can always blame the rating! If you are concerned about violent video games, know that there is no evidence that those types of games lead to violent behavior. But ultimately, it is your decision on whether or not you allow your child to play violent games.