Last year, the World Health Organization issued guidance that infants under one year old should not be exposed to electronic screens, and that children between the ages of 2-4 should not have more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” each day. School-aged children should have limitations on the type of device, activity, and amount of time spent on screens each day, with parents ensuring the kids have adequate face time, physical activity, and shut-eye.
Along with coronavirus came a loosening of restrictions, as parents struggled to find balance and a sense of normalcy. The increased amount of leisure time during the summer time already leads to bad screen time habits, whether there’s an iPhone, tablet, or video game console in the home. What is a parent to do? We all want to be fair and yet also maintain a sense of order in the home. We want our children to be happy, but we are also tasked with keeping them safe.
ARE Video Games Dangerous for the Developing Brain?
Research has been conflicting and we’ve got a long way to go in understanding this evolving field of study.
- The Good: Studies have shown video games can change the structure of the brain and how the brain performs – but the impact is not necessarily negative. Gamers showed improvements in sustained and selective attention, so it became easier to activate and sustain attention on demanding tasks. The size and efficiency of the hippocampus increases, leading to improvements in visuospatial skills and memory. 3D video games, in particular, have been associated with improving memory performance and spatial processing; researchers identified protective benefits against Alzheimer’s, dementia, and depression in adults. An “optimist” might also argue that gaming can help children suffering from isolation by connecting them with their peers through online collaborative play modes, help teach them the value of “trying again” to work toward a desired outcome, and flex their muscles in everything from analytical reasoning and complex problem solving to fine motor dexterity and emotional regulation. Some datasuggests video games can improve fluid intelligence – the capacity to learn new information and problem-solve in novel situations.
- The Bad and The Ugly: The caveat is that video gaming can also lead to structural changes in the brain’s neural reward system, causing cravings similar to other types of addiction. One studyfound that playing video games released an amount of feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine comparable to what intravenous injections of amphetamine do to a person; after the “rush,” the gamer is left with a temporarily diminished supply of dopamine that takes time to build back up – which explains why you may have noticed a host of negative side effects from gaming. These ills may include: obsessive behavior, lack of sleep, lack of physical exercise, headaches, hygiene neglect, neglecting school work, lack of interest in hobbies, escaping problems, irritability, anger, or dishonesty. The “pessimist” may worry that long-term reliance on video games provides stimulating rewards without truly working to achieve or really accomplishing anything meaningful. The fear is that we will produce a generation of self-absorbed, lazy, aggressive, emotionally stunted individuals who are desensitized through repetitive motion play.
What Are The Signs of Video Game ‘Addiction’?
People with diagnosable “video game addiction” have five or more of the following symptoms:
- Thinking about gaming most or all of the time.
- Feeling drained and emotional whenever not playing the game.
- Needing to spend increasing amounts of time playing to feel good.
- Being unable to quit or reduce time on the console.
- Not wanting to do any other activities that used to be enjoyable.
- Having problems at work, school, or home due to gaming.
- Continuing to play video games, even though it becomes a source of conflict.
- Lying to people about how much time is spent playing.
- Relying upon the game to ease negative moods and feelings.
Fortunately, less than 10% of people – adults and children alike – fit the criteria for a true video game addiction. Most borderline “addicts” can be rescued with mild interventions and won’t require counseling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or medication for treatment. If you notice any of these symptoms and feel troubled by it, don’t be afraid to speak to your child’s pediatrician for tailored advice.
What Can You Do To Coexist With Screens and Prevent Video Game Addiction?
- Monitor activity and choose your time wisely. Know what games your child is playing. Use parental tools to regulate time, activity, spending, age level, game type, and features. We know that the glow of the screen can have a negative impact on sleep, so the cut-off for gaming should be dinner time. Keeping your mornings “screen-free” is another way to get the day off to a good start. Your kids may have so much fun doing other activities that they forget to even ask whether they can play video games. Have a timer, set it, and stick to it. Don’t get into the habit of allowing “just five more minutes” or “just one more level.” A reasonable amount of time would be an hour on school days and a two to three hour max on weekend days.
- Help regulate big emotions. Limit gaming when school grades suffer, when physical activity dwindles, when aggression with siblings ramps up, when attitudes flare. Emotional outbursts about adhering to the rules are almost inevitable at certain ages, but they should have fair and consistent consequences – like a day off playing video games tomorrow, or perhaps a week off if the child’s behavior is repetitive or particularly heated. Explain that it’s okay to feel frustrated, disappointed, or even angry, but it’s not okay to throw the controller, slam doors, whine and cry, or shout at mom and dad.
- Make a checklist. A number of parents have found success by creating a checklist of what must be done as a precondition to screen time. “Have you… made your bed? Brushed your teeth? Got dressed? Eaten your breakfast? Read a book? Created something? Exercised?” one such daily routine reads. Make some activities a daily expectation, but work in some flexibility in what they choose to do as well. For instance, you might say your child can choose three of the following: help someone in the family, build something, clean up one room of the house, play outside for 30 minutes, read for 20 minutes, practice an instrument for 20 minutes, or spend 30 minutes coloring or creating artwork. Check out this Pinterest Board for inspiration.
- Provide ideas. Video games can be so stimulating, a child can’t imagine what could possibly be more important or more fun. It helps to have a list prepared before the “I’m Bored” sets in. For example, you could create a list of ideas on what to do in order to:
- “Take Care of Yourself”: Eat breakfast, brush your teeth/hair, get dressed, tidy room.
- “Take Care of the House”: Dishes, counters, vacuum, laundry, feed pet, pick up toys.
- “Build Your Spirit”: Meditation, religious text study, yoga, gratitude journal, set goals.
- “Build Your Body”: Go Noodle, swim, ride bike, sport, obstacle course, play tag, dance.
- “Build Your Brain”: Read, write a story, draw a picture, make a song, play instrument.
- “Build Up Someone Else”: Help a family member, Compliment a sibling, call a friend.
- Introduce alternative activities that feed the brain. If your child loves Super Mario, have him draw a sample course on paper instead of playing Super Mario Maker. If your child likes Pac-Man, have her complete an activity book of mazes instead. Instead of playing the FIFA video game, sign your child up in a beginner soccer league. Rather than play Animal Crossing, spend a day at the beach shelling and plan a picnic. Try a subscription like Kiwi Co or Little Passports that combines building/crafting and learning. Family board game nights can be a fun pastime to start.
- Get into the group. Gaming is a solitary activity. Sign your child up for a camp or social activity instead. The YMCA, community arts centers, recreational sports leagues, and libraries may have low-cost options. Here at Shine, we combine music, art, theatre, literacy, cooking, cultural immersion, and outdoor adventure into our camps, classes, and workshops, so your child is bound to find an enjoyable activity that rivals the best of video games.
The Bottom Line
Get engaged and see what sort of screen time interests your child. All screen time – and all video games – are not created equal. You just may find playing a game together can be a healthy bonding activity. Common Sense Media recommends family games like Active Life Outdoor Challenge, Carnival Island, Kinect Sports, Overcooked, Just Dance, and Mario Kart 8 – to name a few.
Experts say you can let go of guilt and relax if your child is getting homework done, spending time with family and friends, staying physically active, and engaging in an extracurricular activity or hobby. Screens can be incorporated as part of a well-rounded childhood, with moderation.
Your approach will likely end up very similar to how state governors are trying to deal with the pandemic these days – you’ll keeping a pulse on your child’s overall health, gradually loosen restrictions when all is going well, and dial back for a spell when emotions get out of hand. As you’ve heard countless times, you’ll “be dealing with this for some time,” so figuring out how to strike a reasonable balance is likely to be more successful than coming down with the hammer to prohibit all screens.