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Worried about your kids' video gaming? Here's how to help them set healthy limits

Kaitlin Brito for NPR

I grew up in the 1980s and '90s with parents who strictly controlled my "screen time," which almost exclusively meant TV back then, as well as a pocket game that died when I was 10 and was never replaced. Like many in my generation, I absorbed a general sense that video games, like TV, were frivolous brain rot.

Now, my two boys, ages 12 and 13, are growing up in a digital world in a way I did not. Their generation lives online, spending more hours in virtual spaces since the pandemic began.

I'm lucky: My sons are hardworking and kind to their chronically frazzled single mother. They make raising them as easy and joyful as adolescence could possibly allow.

But still, our house rules about video games are arbitrary and our disputes over them constant. No amount of yelling "No games on school nights!" or "Not before dinner!" has worked, or inspired them to learn a new skill instead.

I feel like I'm flying blind when it comes to regulating their game use and I know I'm not alone. Many parents worry that they should be doing more to limit online play.

But as I learned from talking to numerous experts — psychologists, game designers and researchers — the impact of video games is more nuanced than that of other kinds of screen time, like social media. In fact, some research shows it can have positive effects, like promoting problem solving, or teamwork and communication.

Here are these experts' insights and advice for how to optimize the upsides of gaming and protect kids from potential hazards.

Video games are different from other screen time in crucial ways — and have some benefits

"Screen time" is an outdated concept. Kids study, play video games, use social media and watch videos on screens, but those do not all have the same developmental impact. Video games, in fact, do not show the kind of negative behavioral or emotional effects researchers correlate with social media use, says Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and community director for Take This, a mental health advocacy group within the gaming community.

"Research has shown again and again and again, time spent playing video games is not predictive of mental health outcomes," she says.

One reason for the difference in impact may be that social media is primarily about marketing, or comparing oneself to others, while gaming is generally about socializing with friends, solving a puzzle, or engaging in competition.

In fact, Dunlap says, parents often overlook some benefits of games: "They're a tool. You can use games to improve your social connection, to practice feeling emotions we normally avoid, like guilt or grief or shame. A lot of games bring those feelings out in us, and they give us a space to play with those feelings."

Games that involve joint projects like a battle or a quest can help develop useful social skills, says Peter Etchells, a research psychologist at Bath Spa University in the U.K. "It requires very kind of precise team-building," he says. "It requires thinking about timings and placement and good communication skills to coordinate with people. It's doing that kind of coordinated work that's really useful for all sorts of things."

Help kids prioritize offline activities so gaming doesn't subsume them

Children need some limits on their gaming, especially if it begins to crowd out other essential or healthy activities, many experts warn, like schoolwork and sleep in particular.

"Screen time is a hard thing to quantify," says Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital. "What is easier to quantify — and probably more in line with what is developmentally optimal — is quantifying non-screen time."

He advises parents to watch that family meals, chores, and outdoor or in-person play do not get subsumed into game time.

Kids also benefit from having periods of lower stimulation, away from technology, Rich says. "I want to bring back boredom," Rich argues, because that can also lead to imaginative play.

You need to start gaming with your kids

Every expert I spoke with recommended playing video games with your child to figure out what might specifically be motivating them to play — the needs the game might fill for them.

Online chess, for example, is a different experience than a multiplayer game with friends. Shy children might find it easier to socialize in games. Another child might regard it as stress relief. Some children may use games as a place to escape or process a difficult situation.

Boston Children's Rich says most things parents worry about with games — stranger danger, violence, sexuality — can be addressed by simply exploring the game through their eyes.

"What's happening is that you are saying, 'I love you, I respect you, I want to understand what is engaging you here,'" says Rich. "You're entering that space with a very different stance, that of essentially the student. You will get a sense for what the game is."

If you've noticed your kids yell, scream or cry about something that happened in a game, don't be disturbed, experts say. A child's reactions to emotions and interpersonal dynamics are real, even if the play itself takes place virtually, or on a device. Experts say outbursts during game play do not mean your child is more likely to act violently in real life.

Video games are like other spaces where your kids spend time. Ask yourself: Is it safe? Who else is there?

Games are social spaces — good or bad things can happen there — just as in real life. Think about the games your kids play as just another kind of space where you're letting them hang out, several experts suggested.

For example: If you have a 5-year-old, you wouldn't drop your child off alone at a mall, where strangers might approach. Now you might drop off your teen at the mall, but not before discussing who they're hanging out with, what they plan to do, and perhaps an agreement about when to come home for dinner. The same general principles can apply to teens who game.

Parents should ask themselves: Does the game culture itself seem conducive to age-appropriate behavior? Games with female characters with exaggerated sexual features, for example, might subject a child to sexual harassment.

If you don't like what you're seeing in a game, remember that outright bans and restrictions tend to backfire with adolescents. It's more vital to keep communication lines open, says Dunlap and other experts, so if something bad happens within the game, you can help them process or deal with it.

Watch for "dark designs" or designs that fuel nonstop playing

Be on the watch for certain "dark patterns" or "dark designs" in games, say several gaming experts. These terms refer to software or algorithms written to elicit certain negative behaviors in their users.

One of the most common is in-game purchases that can border on extortion, says Max Birk, an industrial-design researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. "It's important because it changes what the emphasis of the game designers is," he says.

Games fueled by in-game purchases (as opposed to games you buy up front, like NBA2K or Dance Dance Revolution) tend to have a financial stake in keeping children engaged for long periods of time. These games make it very easy to start a new game, or create steep incentives to keep players coming back.

Birk suggests talking to your kids about the game structure and directing them toward games that are more about story lines, or that have natural ending points that can allow the kid to wind down game play on their own.

Monitor games for toxic culture and harassment

Toxic culture and comments can thrive in certain games because parents are not monitoring those spaces. That often takes the form of harassment of female gamers. The onus is on parents of boys, especially, to make sure that they treat people equitably online, and to stand up against any sexist or misogynistic talk, says Jesse Fox, a communications professor at Ohio State University.

Remind your kids that rules about respectful behavior apply online as they do in life. "Gaming culture and gaming norms are going to imprint on their idea of normal behavior, what's acceptable behavior," Fox says. That's why it is critical for parents to monitor that play space — listen to conversations, keep the screen within public view.

Find the spaces that are safer and more inclusive by design. Fortnite, Fox notes, is an example of a game that has a huge diversity of characters in game, because it's trying to appeal to a very broad audience. That diversity makes it harder to distinguish players by race or gender.

Watch for these gaming red flags

For many children, gaming can be positive, but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for these signs of problematic game use.

Excessive spending in games: The game's financial incentives might be to keep your child engaged and encourage — even try to coerce — their characters into spending money to advance. Teach your child to recognize these kinds of tactics and redirect them to games where the game itself is the primary focus.

Negative reactions or anxiety over gaming friends: If your kid is repeatedly having big emotional reactions to the game, check in and figure out what elements of the game are so upsetting. Then redirect them to games and spaces that don't have these elements. Find single-player games to take a break from social dynamics.

Too little sleep: If your child is playing late into the night or turning up groggy in the morning, their game use might be out of hand. Make sure the child cannot access games all night long. Often, it's not the desire to play the game itself, but the social pressure to not miss out on experiences with friends that will keep them online, U.K. researcher Peter Etchells says. So shut down other technology as well, preferably well before bedtime.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.