In addition to being fun, playing video games can reduce stress, lighten depression, increase vision, improve the ability to multi-task and improve decision-making skillsi. Online gaming is also linked to obesity, increasing depression, poor grades, addictive behavior and increased aggressive or violent behaviorii.
Confronted with seemingly conflicting research findings, parents need to take time to be informed about the games their children are playing, the safety settings and features of the devices they are playing games on, and then apply common sense to their kids’ online gaming opportunities. Recognize that what works for one child may not be the right mix for another child.
What is included in the term video game?
The term “video game” spans everything from playing a simple game of Solitaire on your own to massively multiplayer online games (MMOG’s) with whole virtual universes, where users interact with other players, and where transactions – usually points or game enhancements, but sometimes real money – are involved.
Video games are played on computers and laptops, handheld devices, game consoles – and with increasing frequency – on phones and tablets. Some games are purchased and installed on devices, others are downloaded from the internet, and some are played exclusively online.
Video games are popular at all ages: Older women top the use of simple single player games; young men are the heaviest users of “war games.” The massively multiplayer games attract users from 8-80. Some games are educational; others are horrifically violent and may include graphic sexuality. Yet many games are set up to be played with friends or family in the same room and many of these games are a great way for families to interact and spend time together.
Games are rated to help parents and youth identify the type of content in each game
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) evaluates video and computer games and provides a rating system similar to film ratings so parents can make informed decisions prior to purchasing a game.
These ESRB ratings have two components: 1) Symbols that suggest appropriate ages for players, and 2) descriptors to help parents understand what elements factored into the rating score. To successfully use the ESRB rating system, you need to look at both aspects. Check the rating symbol (on the front of the game box) and the content descriptors (on the back of the game box).
Understand the capabilities and safety features of gaming devices
Game consoles today come with family safety settings (often called parental controls) that allow parents to set time limits, block inappropriate games, and determine whether users can interact with only their friends, whether they can interact with any other gamer, or not be allowed to interact at all. You can find specific instructions for establishing these settings on the game console’s websites or you can look at A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, Parental Controls and Online Safety.
On computers, you can use the built-in family protection tools or parental control tools you install yourself to set the same types of limits. Handheld devices also have control settings, and one setting to pay particular attention to is whether you allow Bluetooth connections that allow others to interact with your child through this type of device.
If the game is played online and allows players to interact, keep in mind that the safety settings and controls do not monitor the conversations within the games. While most conversations will be entirely appropriate, there may be some people who choose not to act appropriately. If your child interacts with others, talk to them about the potential for bullying, people who cheat, and people that want to get too friendly (or other grooming behavior). For younger kids, there are many online gaming sites specifically designed for youth with content moderators reviewing conversations. These may be the right option for you.
Helpful tips for healthy gaming
- Consider the age and maturity of your child and the games they are asking to play. When reviewing the ESRB ratings and content descriptors, do the games seem to be a good fit for your child? If there are older gamers in the home, kids will often want to play the games they see being played rather than the ones that fit their age group. If the game being played by older kids isn’t appropriate, they probably shouldn’t be watching when their siblings play.
- Look at the gaming device your child will play on. Are the safety settings in place for your child? Do they match his level of maturity and help you set appropriate boundaries with regards to the types of games allowed, who they are allowed to interact with, and the amount of time/times of day they can play? If not, be sure to configure these safety settings before your child starts gaming.
- Talk to your child about appropriate gaming. This conversation is crucial as it sets the framework for understanding and collaboration for gaming successfully. Talk about the safety settings you have put in place, about the types of games that are appropriate or inappropriate, about the time limitations and the importance of having a balanced experience with online gaming, friends, activities, and school. Let your child know that you will periodically check on their gaming – particularly if it includes conversations with people you don’t know – to be sure the conversations are respectful, aren’t sharing too much information, etc.
Explain that you will help them with any problem they encounter like cyberbullying, cheating or other inappropriate behavior by using the report abuse functionality within the sites. Let them also know that any inappropriate behavior on their part will have immediate consequences; spell out what the consequences will be for failing to follow the family’s or website’s rules, so these are clear in advance of any trouble.
- Set time limits. Gaming by its very nature is compelling, with users wanting to reach the next level, earn the next point, or find the enhancement, and it’s easy to lose track of time. Finding the right amount of time can be a balancing act, but some basic guidelines could be that there is no gaming until homework and chores are done, more gaming is allowed on weekends vs. school nights, and that 2 nights a week are technology free nights in your home. If your child’s gaming device (console, laptop, phone or computer) is in their bedroom, it is particularly important to have device time limits in place to help avoid the temptation of playing after bedtime.
- Monitor the websites they visit. Since many games are played online through a computer that isn’t catching the fact that it’s a game being played, it’s important to review your child’s browser history to identify if game time has spread to more hours.
- Play with them. Understand the games they’re playing and join in the fun. Not only will this give you a great way to bond with your child, it will give you the insight into what’s going on in the game.