With the growing popularity of Fortnite and others, video games have found their way into mainstream news. Suddenly, everyone has become intensely aware of the amount of time kids are playing games. We see children playing for hours on end, begin to worry, and ask the question, “Is my child addicted to video games?”
Don’t worry. Statistically, probably not—at least not clinically.
But this doesn’t mean that we should assume everything is okay and allow the constant barrage of games and media to soak our children’s brains beyond saturation. Video games often reward their users for continual play. Eventually, the brain is trained to long for these rewards, which if are not careful, can lead to unhealthy relationships with video games. With the increase in open world games (like Red Dead Redemption, Breath of the Wild, and even Minecraft) and “battle royale” style play (Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s new mode) game developers have shifted from creating levels to creating worlds with endless adventures and variability. Without intentional and consistent guidance from their parents or caretakers, we shouldn’t expect children to cultivate responsible relationships with such compelling and dynamic worlds.
As a parent, your role in all of this is to guide your children to make good decisions, not make the decisions for them. You won’t always be there to shield your children, but you can empower them to handle the choices they face.
At the younger ages, we help them make the good decisions by showing them what to do. In the teenage years, as they strive for independence, you guide them to make the right decision on their own.
Take heart: everyone has the occasional day when we play for hours on end. Just because your child does this doesn’t mean they are addicted. Context is key. Are they playing for long stretches on a holiday when their free from the normal constraints and responsibilities of the school week? That’s far less concerning than a child who chooses to play for long stretches instead of doing homework. However, as a parent, its your job to observe how your children choose to spend their time to make sure their not developing a negative relationship with the games they play. There are numerous warning signs and helpful tricks, though you know your child better than we do. These are just some signs you should look deeper into the heart of the problem.
Warning Signs To Look Out For
- Declining School Grades: We all have a finite amount time and children and teenagers are notoriously bad at prioritizing. When stress arises, the temptation to sink into video games for long periods overpowers the rational thought and understanding of deadlines. Those hours on end of gaming have to come from somewhere. Declining grades in school could be due to numerous factors, but devoting time to games rather than school will only make things worse.
- Handling Negative Emotions: Gaming presents unique challenges but also unique frustrations. One indication that people have become to wrapped up in games comes with an inability to handle negative emotions. Your child lashing out angrily could demonstrate an inability to deal with loss or other negative feelings. While they may be seeking to escape negative emotion, games often don’t alleviate this stress. But be careful here, sometimes games are simply frustrating because your child can’t figure out to advance, solve a puzzle, or defeat a level. Consider encouraging them to take a break and let them try again another day when their not so frustrated. When you see your child getting worked up, don’t turn off their gaming system or pull the plug without first giving warnings. This will only add to their frustration. Communicate clearly about when game time is over, give warnings. Ask questions about why they got frustrated.
- Health Issues: Long, uninterrupted periods of sitting still are known to be bad for a person’s health. Gaming can often involve long periods of exactly that: sitting on the couch for extended periods without break. Furthermore, gaming culture is notorious for consuming junk food and energy drinks. Over a long time, excessive gaming can result in a physically unhealthy lifestyle that could get worse as the child gets older. Unhealthy habits built in adolescence become difficult to break in adulthood. When we see our children trade an active lifestyle for a sedentary one, decreasing the amount of time spent sitting still can prevent many adverse health issues later in life.
Helpful Tips to Help Your Child
- Buy an Egg Timer: No, seriously. Buy a cheap egg timer. Communicate and set an age-appropriate amount of time beforehand on the timer. As they get older, give them a little more freedom to tell you how long they are planning on playing and whether their daily responsibilities are done. At the ding, their time on the game is over. Give your child a couple minutes of grace to find a save point, finish a battle, etc. This communicates the expectations reasonably and upfront. When it’s time to get off, it isn’t mom or dad telling them to get off, it’s the egg timer. They can get as mad as they want at the egg timer but the egg timer won’t care. They will learn to self-regulate their playing time instead of having to be told by someone else. As they become more involved in setting the amount of time, it becomes their decision, not someone else’s.
- Outside Sports and activities: No one at Love Thy Nerd will tell you games are bad. We love games. Yet, we would all agree that it’s important to have a balanced life. Children and teens need play and physical activity. It helps form bonds with other people, keeps kids healthy, and teaches valuable skills that define their transition into adulthood. Many areas offer recreational or competitive leagues of various different sports, arts, and activities. Did your child end up in a sport or activity they don’t like? Try another. Try all of them. Eventually something will click. There were many sports I tried and failed (even striking out in tee ball) until I found one I enjoyed. It’ll come. If your child doesn’t connect with any team sport or activity you try, consider taking them hiking as a means of helping them develop a love of nature. When kids have other aspects of their life, they end up well-rounded with a plethora of skills and abilities, equipping them with numerous tools as they grow into adulthood.
- Play Games With Your Kids: I realize for some of you this may seem like a form of torture. After all, these games may not even be geared towards you. Most of them seem pointless or impossible to understand. No one said parenting would be easy. Playing games with them shows that you are interested in them as a people and value the things they do. Even if you are just watching them play, you are able to bond with them and see the types of games they are playing (and whether they are appropriate or not). For parents of teenagers, there may (read as “definitely will”) be some push back here. But the angsty teen will always need their parents, even when they try to push them away. Teens need older role models and parents who meet them where they are and lovingly mentor them in the process.
- Move All The Electronics Out Of The Bedroom: While this will make you the most unpopular person in the house, this is for everyone’s benefit. Seeing the games your children are playing becomes increasingly difficult when the door is closed. This goes for internet access and phones as well. With all the dangers present on the internet, unmonitored access behind closed doors seems more irresponsible than convenient. We should absolutely trust children to make smart, wise decisions, but that doesn’t mean we should make it easy for them not to. Trust but verify. When you bring everything out into the open, they become a part of the family and not a hermit who leaves their bedroom only to come out for meals. Open access provides accountability and, whether they like it or not, encourages children and teens to behave responsibly online.
We have all enjoyed the occasional multi-hour play session. Gaming becomes a second social place for many people through online services and co-op matches. Yet, these marathons of gaming, especially in the lives of children and teens, should be the exception and not the rule. Unhealthy relationships with video games develop over time and, as the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Working with your children to establish healthy boundaries for when and how long will only serve to help them later in life. It looks after their health physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While they may clash with you at first, they will be better people in the long run because of your involvement in their lives.