By Joanna Nesbit
If you have a boy, you’ve likely noticed he loves playing video games with friends. According to a 2015 Pew Research Survey, 84 percent of boys play video games and say that networked gaming makes them feel more connected to friends.
Recent research demonstrates other positive effects of video games, too. Video games can promote critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and collaboration. Friendly competition fosters “pro-social” behaviors—the ability to take others’ feelings into account—as well as iterative learning (trying again until you succeed).
Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, believes the rise in teen depression and anxiety correlates to the decline of their sense of control over their lives and fewer opportunities to play outdoors, explore, and pursue interests. Gaming offers boys, especially, a way to play and interact away from adult eyes (girls favor social media for socializing).
The Benefits of Playing Video Games
“One of the benefits for boys of playing video games is they feel a sense of accomplishment with gaming they don’t feel in school,” notes Gray, a professor at Boston College. “Back in the day, most teens had part-time jobs, but they don’t anymore, and kids vary in their willingness to work for grades.”
Perhaps your gamer son has shrewdly learned a few of the above facts to persuade you why video games are good for you. But how much is too much when it comes to gaming? Until now, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no more than two hours of screen time per day (updated guidelines are coming in 2016), but in this era of mobile media, teens would have to live under a rock to comply.
Experts differ on how to handle gaming limits. Some, like Gray, suggest an organic approach that focuses less on specific restrictions and more on helping teenagers balance gaming—and all technology— with other important activities, like school, family, and spending time offline with friends.
But other experts are firm proponents of setting specific limits, especially for teenagers who have trouble turning off their video games.
That includes Lara Honos-Webb, psychologist and author of The Gift of ADHD. She recommends parents make a distinction between total screen time—homework, communication—and gaming time, with no more than two hours of gaming per day, with possible exceptions on weekends.
“Beyond two hours, we know gaming may be affecting kids’ ability to pay attention, and there will be negative consequences that interfere with teens’ developmental needs,” she explains.
Though they differ in approach, Gray and Honos-Webb do agree that it’s wise to get buy-in from your teenager. Consider these strategies.
Help kids prioritize.
Teens have full days with school, homework, extracurriculars, and sleep. Teens who figure out where gaming fits into their busy schedule will have a better outcome than when parents dictate time frames for them, especially if they’re older teens headed off to college in the next couple years (where they will set their own limits anyway).
Increase opportunities for face-to-fact time.
Rather than adopting the mindset of setting screen time limits, Gray suggests ensuring teens have meaningful possibilities for face-to-face time with friends in unstructured ways. Today’s busy adolescents yearn for downtime without a supervising adult, he notes.
Help them identify ambitions.
If a teen’s goal is to attend a selective college or earn a spot on a varsity team, too much gaming can get in the way. Honos-Webb likes the phrase, “It may not be worth it to you to make varsity this year, but video games are interfering with your achieving that.”
Watch for depression and anxiety.
If your teen appears to use gaming to retreat, consider why. Trouble with academics? Friends at school? Excessive gaming can stem from an underlying issue such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD. Studies show that teens with ADHD are drawn to gaming because they’re able to focus their attention, but Honos-Webb says too much of the activity can diminish these teenagers’ attention span for school and other real-world activities.
Ensure solid sleep.
Teens need a good night’s sleep (around 9 hours). Establish bedrooms as media-free zones after a certain hour.
Model responsible use.
Watch your own media use. Are you on your phone all the time but nagging your teen to get off his PlayStation? Skip phones at the dinner table and strive for balanced media use—yours, too.
Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes frequently about parenting and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Fun, Parenting, and elsewhere.