Q: I am part of a moms’ group that puts on monthly parent meetings in an effort to educate parents about the issues surrounding screen time in the home. In our next meeting, we will be focusing on video gaming, and I would like your advice on how to handle the inevitable parental question: “If I don’t expose my children to video games now, won’t they just go out on their own and not be able to control the urge to play since it is a forbidden activity at home?”
– Mom Managing Media, Charlotte, NC
A: Dear Mom,
This is a very interesting question because you are essentially dealing with two issues: the effects of playing a video game on any individual child, and whether a child who has had zero exposure to video games will get caught up with or addicted to game play once given the opportunity. First, know that for many kids today, video games are a part of childhood, and many of them will be exposed to video games at some point or another, even if they are not allowed at home. The question then really becomes, what can parents do to help ensure that their child’s exposure to video games is developmentally appropriate and that the time they spend gaming is balanced with other essential activities and entertainment options?
There are many types of video games, and parents should understand that children learn from and are changed by the games they play. Video games have the unique ability to provide users with a virtual reality in which players are immersed in a world and guided toward certain behaviors and responses to the situations presented by that game (that is, they are rewarded for performing the game activities well and punished for performing less well). That means that it’s important to pay attention to the content of games and how kids interact with them: They could be building a society, creating a biological organism, or strategizing a sport, but they could also be stealing cars or killing terrorists. The key is that they will learn and rehearse over and over again the content of that game, so it is essential that the games you allow your children to play teach them skills and lessons you want them to learn.
Attraction to the “forbidden fruit” can be diminished by providing children with positive video games and a rich variety of alternative activities. I recommend that parents provide developmentally optimal games, games that teach life expectations and skills that parents want for their children. To best understand what their children are learning and to help them process scenarios that upset or confuse them, I urge parents to become students to their children and play the games with them. This normalizes gaming rather than making it seem forbidden and it allows parents to engage and share with their children the virtual experiences they are having, rather than fearing and forbidding an activity that they do not know or understand.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,