I regularly speak to parents who are concerned about the effect of computer games on their children’s well-being and its impact on family life. Depending on our background, personality and experience, some of us may feel out of touch with our children’s all-consuming passion for this pastime.
As with all forms of digital technology, we need to take precautions to safeguard our children from any problems or dangers that might arise. But it is also good to recognise the opportunities and enjoyment that online gaming can offer, including its educational potential and ability to fire the imagination and engage our children emotionally. Here are some tips that can help us handle the main issues:
1. Join in: The best way to encourage a child who loves video games is the same as if they loved Lego, football or reading – by experiencing it ourselves and helping them get the most out it. Even if we have different priorities in life, it’s worth getting a first-hand understanding of what video games have to offer. I recently had a brief foray into gaming, and whilst it will never be my leisure activity of choice, (and I will never be as dextrous as my 14-year-old opponent on the console) I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
One dad told me that some of the games he played with his children included learning about the power of the wind, what it’s like to lose a loved one to cancer, and the challenges of travelling to a different country as a refugee. Games can feed a child’s imagination, transport them to different worlds and involve them in stories that evoke the same beauty, joy and sadness found in books and films. There is the opportunity to compete, celebrate success, learn about respect and resilience, and tackle difficult subjects like bullying, loss or illness,
Rather than simply imposing limits or bans, we can make sure there are times when we play together as a family and help our children make sense of the experiences they have throughout the game. Particularly if our children are young, being involved in their games means they are more likely to look to us to guide their playing habits as they grow older.
One dad told me how he used video games to stay connected with his 15-year-old daughter. He said, “Unlike watching TV or a film together, when chatting is an interruption, gaming is more interactive. She is relaxed and chats away; there is an ease about our conversation.”
2. Screen time: One of the main concerns parents have is the sheer amount of time children spend on screens, so it’s important to agree some boundaries with them. Whilst this may not be easy with a 16-year-old established gamer, younger children often respond well to being asked how often and how long they want to play for, as it leads to them seeing the self-imposed limits positively.
3. Use technology to help: We can set automatic limits on a child’s playtime in a number of ways. All modern games have parental control features that enable you to limit how long they can be played each day; the game will automatically pause after that time. Your internet provider may also offer settings to limit access. Better still, are devices like Circle from Disney or screen time features included in iOS and Android phones that enable you to set bedtimes, limits and off-times on different devices. These can also limit game time while still allowing a child to access websites for homework.
4. Stranger danger: Gaming has a strong social element (58% of 12–15-year-olds say they use online chat features to talk to others), so we need to be aware of the potential for unmoderated chat features to be used by predators to lure children away to different platforms. This means understanding what is happening on our child’s screen, rather than just limiting the time they play. All games have settings to limit how players can interact with each other online, but googling the name of the game and ‘parental controls’ is a good way to find out more.
Although it may be a challenge to implement, gaming journalist Andy Robertson’s advice is so wise: “The best way to keep things safe is, where possible, to play together and keep gaming screens in shared family spaces. That way we not only see what’s going on, but our children have a chance to discuss their experiences with us as they happen.”
5. Violence: The link between playing violent games and aggressive behaviour is a big worry for parents, and dozens of studies can be found to support either side of the debate. PEGI (Pan European Game Information) give age-appropriate ratings and provide information on content, with descriptors like Violence, Horror, Sex and Language. Setting good boundaries regarding these ratings, noticing our children’s reactions to the games they are playing, and encouraging them to be self-aware, should create a safe gaming environment.
6. Money and gambling: Talk to your children about how easy it is to spend too much on in-app purchases and the dangers of gambling. When they are younger, help them to save up for any in-app purchases they want and help them spend this money wisely. Having secure passwords on any account that your child may use will avoid any unwanted or unplanned purchases, and you can consider setting limits on transactions. Gift cards are also a great way of ensuring that children understand what they are spending.
7. Know your child: For some children, playing video games can be a way to relax. Kim, mum to Bradley, said: “If he’s being difficult, my initial reaction is to ban all gaming. However, I’ve come to understand that sometimes this behaviour is because he’s tired or has simply had a bad day at school. Letting him play on his game for an agreed time helps him unwind.”
As parents, we are the best placed to notice any adverse change in our child’s behaviour after playing an online game. Be aware that as well as the content of the game, they may simply be affected by an adrenaline rush. So in the same way that we may need to give our children time out if they’ve been to an exciting football match, we can build in space to help them transition back from the intensity of the game to the reality of day-to-day living.
It’s true that gaming can become an addiction, but before jumping to the conclusion that your child is addicted, it’s worth asking ourselves if their behaviour is masking other issues in their lives. Excessive gaming might actually be a symptom of underlying issues affecting their well-being, rather than the cause of obsessive behaviour. To be diagnosed with a clinical addiction, a child must be playing video games for many hours to the detriment of school, personal hygiene and relationships. And they must continue to play for twelve months after these problems have been identified. If your child is exhibiting behaviour that meets this criteria, it would be wise, of course, to seek professional help.
At their best, video games can help children develop social and emotional skills, decision-making, planning and evaluation skills, critical thinking and empathy. For many children, games are even a valuable way of forming real life friendships. It may at times be tempting to lock all the games in a cupboard and throw away the key, but let’s not forget how it can be a valuable part of family life. Taking some time to think through the issues means that we can avoid the pitfalls and help our children get the best out of the hobby they enjoy.
Katharine Hill is the UK Director of Care for the Family. She speaks and writes on family matters and is a regular author for the Huffington Post. She has practised as a family lawyer and is a member of the board of the International Commission on Couple and Family Relations. Katharine is married to Richard and they have four grown-up children. Katharine’s fully revised new edition of Left to Their Own Devices? is available now at www.muddypearl.com