Kids and Video Games: Setting Limits for Healthy Play

For many of today’s children, adolescents and adults, imagining a world without video games seems unimaginable. From classic games using wired controllers and single players to present-day games using wireless controllers and virtual reality, endless character customizations, and worldwide multiplayer networks, video games have become a universal presence in modern society.

But what are the consequences of playing video games? Are there any benefits? And how can you limit time on video games?

What are the possible consequences of playing video games?

First, not all video games are created equal. Some are primarily educational in nature, while others are less so, and may be more violent. Research suggests that violent video games may increase the likelihood of aggression and decrease empathy, particularly in adolescents. Other behaviors may also be negatively affected by video games. Imagine a seesaw with video games on one end and social activities, physical activity and academic tasks like homework and studying on the other end. When video game time goes up, face-to-face social activities where children learn the subtle nuances of verbal and nonverbal communication, physical activity and time for academics goes down. This imbalance can lead to social withdrawal, health problems, such as an increased risk for obesity, and academic problems.

Are there any benefits to playing video games?

Video games are currently used to map individual neurons in the brain, teach foreign languages and treat soldiers with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They can be helpful in improving children’s problem solving skills, cooperative play, fine-motor coordination, reaction times and persistence. All of these skills can translate to “real world” benefits. For example, by teaching persistence toward completing a goal when a child is heavily motivated to complete the task (i.e., during videogames), children learn the skills necessary to persevere – such as facing frustration – when they are less motivated, or perceive a task to be too difficult (i.e., homework).

How can parents limit video games?

The average American child plays approximately 7-14 hours of video games per week. However, the average American adult watches approximately 35 hours of TV per week – that’s five times the amount of video game playing! Children copy the behavior of their parents. If you want your child to spend less time playing video games, reflect on your own amount of screen time.

Consider the Three M’s when assessing the role video games play in your household:

Make time to know what your child is playing.

  • What are they learning from playing?
  • Is the game age appropriate? If not, is the game being supervised by an adult to make sure inappropriate themes are not being discussed and repeated or misinterpreted by the child

Monitor what your child is playing and who they are playing with.

  • Is their game time negatively affecting their social life, health or academics?
  • Do you notice any significant changes in their behavior, such as increased irritability or aggression, decreased empathy, or increased social withdrawal?
  • If your child is playing online, make it a point to know who they are talking to and playing with.

Moderate how much time your child spends playing games.

  • Too much of anything can be harmful.
  • If you notice significant changes in your child’s health, social or academic functioning, set limits and reduce screen time. Children will likely not be happy about this limitation as they may not be able to see the same concerns that led you to limit-setting.
  • A reward system or behavioral contract for middle-school-aged or older children can be helpful.

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Michael Flores, PhD
Michael Flores, PhD, is a clinical psychologist within the Big Lots Outpatient Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He works directly with children, adolescents, and their families in assessing and treating a wide variety of mental health concerns. Dr. Flores’ clinical interests include working with parents to help them better understand and manage their children’s disruptive behaviors, particularly those related to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), via family therapy or by co-leading one of the Incredible Years Parenting Program groups at the Downtown Close to Home Center. He is also interested in working with families and schools to minimize the impact disruptive behaviors have on children’s academic performance.

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