When parents ask me, "How much time should I allow my children to play video games?" I already know what they want. They’re after a simple and concrete answer, such as, "45 minutes per day."
But that’s not the answer I want to give them. In reality, I want to tell them, "Don’t do it! Avoid video games like the plague. You’ll only open a Pandora’s box of problems that would be much better left at the electronics stores."
We’ve all heard many opinions that back up this recommendation. For example, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that many electronic games revolve around killing and maiming, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, sexual exploitation, racial, sexual and gender stereotyping, foul language and obscene gestures.
The Academy also goes on to report that too much exposure to video games can lead youngsters to develop poor social skills, isolation from their peers, low grades, disinterest in reading, obesity and aggressive thoughts and behaviors.
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But what I’ve never heard discussed is the increased stress these games inflict on kids’ families. Very few moms and dads have ever told me that video games have improved their life at home. Instead, I hear parents report that their children (usually boys) are obsessed with video gaming and must be pried away when it’s time to eat dinner or go to bed. These same youngsters often hurry through their schoolwork, doing the least amount of shoddy work possible. Or they resort to lying to their folks, saying, "I don’t have any homework tonight," so they can resume using their Wii.
Family stress also goes up as parents assume the role of jail wardens in their own houses. One mother explained, "I’ve set limits on how much he can play, but he sneaks back to the game when we’re not looking. I’ve resorted to unplugging the box and taking it with me when I leave so that he can’t play it when I’m not there."
Parents may disagree about the best strategies for managing electronic gaming behavior, and even find themselves locked in conflict. Couple after couple has told me that one member of the marriage thinks video games are just fine while the other views them as a serious disruption in their lives.
Of course, there are some benefits in allowing children to play video games. Children enjoy playing them with their friends, so there is valuable social interaction taking place. Parents can participate in them with their kids. Computers and electronics are ever present in our lives, so it’s important that youngsters know how to operate them. And children who are deprived of an activity often become even more obsessed with it. One wise mother even told me how she used video games as an incentive for her child: He earned video time by completing chores and demonstrating a cooperative attitude.
But my inherent feeling about allowing kids to play electronic games is cautious at best. Why introduce an activity into our children’s lives that we know can lead to addiction for the kids and increased conflict and tension for the parents?
If you choose to make your family video game free, try the following:
Be clear about your decision. The firmer you are about your convictions, the less whining you’ll hear from the kids. Don’t fret when they claim that everyone else in the world has one. A simple retort, "I want you to do other things with your time," will eventually convince them.
Elicit the support of your partner. This decision is always best if all adults in the household are on board. Even if one of you is wishy-washy about the ban, I advise following the lead of the one who is most adamant.
Start early. Curtailing television and videos from the very beginning means less conflict later on.
Explore other alternative activities. Play board games. Make crafts. Go to museums. Play musical instruments. Read books. Take hikes. Build models. The options are limitless for other pastimes.
If, like most parents, you’ve said yes to the video invasion, implement these limits to keep your kids on track:
Limit time to 30-60 minutes per day. Set a timer so that everyone knows when it’s time to stop. Don’t fall for the "my-game’s-not-over" line. Most games can be paused and resumed where Junior left off.
Scrutinize the games your children buy. Be a wise consumer and select only games that you approve of.
Be informed. Play the games with your youngsters so you are familiar with the content.
Expose kids to other activities. Make video gaming only one small part of your youngsters’ life. Insist on a variety of extra-curricular hobbies to foster emotionally and physically well-rounded offspring.
Be a good role model. If you’re glued to your computer after work, your kids are going to follow suit. Involve yourself in interests that don’t focus on a screen.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, go to lindalewisgriffith.com.