How to talk to kids about video games

How to talk to kids about video games

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Credit: Nick Velazquez/Mozilla

Dr. Naomi Fisher poses for a photo.

I spend a lot of time talking to parents about screens. Most of these conversations are about fear.

“I’m so worried about my child retreating to the screens,” they say. “Are they addicted? How can I make them stop?

I understand where they come from. I am a clinical psychologist with 16 years of experience in the UK and France, including for the UK National Health Service and in private practice. I am also the mother of an 11 year old daughter and a teenager.

“Screen time” has become one of the bogeymen of our time. We blame screens for our children’s unhappiness, anger, or lack of engagement. We worry about screen time all the time, so much so that sometimes it seems like the benchmark of a good parent in 2022 is the stringency of your screen time limits.

Credit: Nick Velazquez/Mozilla

Set screen time

The weirdest thing about this is that “screen time” doesn’t really exist. You can’t pin it down if you don’t think the screen itself – a sheet of glass – has a magical, harmful effect. A screen is just a portal to many activities that also take place offline. These include games, chatting, reading, writing, watching documentaries, coding, language learning and art – I could go on.

Just yesterday my teenager and I played Redactle online word puzzle together. We’ve been doing it daily for months and have learned history, science, poetry and bed bugs along the way. Do word puzzles become damaging because they are accessed through a sheet of glass?

Yet parents are afraid of “too much” screen time and they want firm answers. “Is 30 minutes a day too much?” they ask. When I in turn ask them what their children are doing on the screens, they rarely have the slightest idea. “Looking at garbage” or “wasting time” are common responses. It’s not often that parents spend time in front of screens with their children, with many saying they don’t want to encourage it.

Stop counting the minutes

I tell parents to stop counting the minutes for a while and instead spend time watching their children without judgment. They come back surprised.

Parents see their children socializing with friends as they play. They design their own mini-games or memorize the countries of the world. They built the Titanic in Minecraft. The bogeyman of screen time is beginning to melt away.

For me, screens give families a chance.

Photo: Lauren Psyk

They are a chance to connect with our children by doing something they love. And for some young people, there are advantages that they cannot find elsewhere.

Some kids I meet don’t feel competent elsewhere in their lives, but feel good about themselves when playing video games. They tell me about Plants vs. Zombies and they come to life. We swap tips on our favorite way to defend the house against marauding zombies. They love games, but everyone tells them they should be doing something else. Often, no other adults seem interested.

I see young people who are really isolated. They have difficulty making friends or they have been bullied at school. Online games can be their first step towards bonding. They don’t need to talk first: they type in the in-game chat and when they feel ready, they switch to voice chat. They emerge at their own pace.

Some of the young people I work with find it difficult to keep calm throughout the day. For them, their devices offer a way to take up space. They put on their headphones and sink into a familiar game. They recharge, allowing them to face their day a little longer. It’s a wonderfully portable way to decompress.

Do games make you unhappy?

I’m not saying there’s never a reason to worry. I meet young people who are very unhappy. They use the game to avoid their thoughts and feelings, and they get very angry when asked to stop. The adults around them usually blame the games for their annoyance, believing that banning them would help improve their well-being.

But here’s the thing: gambling is rarely the cause of the problem. Rather, it is a solution that a young person has found to deal with what he feels. Sometimes gambling can seem like the only thing that makes them happy. Banning video games takes that away, causing a child to feel mad at their parents at the same time.

We need to get to the root of their unhappiness rather than banning something they love, and we need to nurture that relationship. Sometimes letting go of judgment on play can cause parents and children to reconnect rather than fight.

Promoting the interests of our children

Appreciating our kids’ love of screens is more than just showing interest in what they’re doing. When they were little, we took care of their most precious toys, even if they were ragged and dirty. They were important because they were important to our child. We didn’t tell them their teddy bears were trash and we’d like to get rid of them (even though we secretly thought exactly that) because we knew it would hurt them.

Now older, games and digital creations have replaced soft toys. When we demonize screens, we demonize the things our kids love. We tell them that the things they appreciate have no value. We tell them that the things they value the most are a waste of time. This will never be a good way to build a strong and supportive relationship.

Instead, I encourage parents to join their children. You may be bored by the game, but you can be interested in your child and what makes him come alive. You can appreciate their joy, curiosity and exploration. You can try out the games and see what they find so exciting. Download Brawl Stars, Minecraft or Roblox and see if your child will show you how to play. If they don’t want to, find a tutorial video for yourself.

Show them that you are interested in their passions, because you are interested in them. They will see that you appreciate them for who they are. And from that seed, many good things can grow.

How to talk to kids about video games

Watch what your kids are doing on screens, even if at first you don’t see the point of it. Ask them to tell you about it or simply to observe.

Ask if you can join them, even if that means watching videos together. Resist the urge to denigrate what they do. Look for other similar websites that they find interesting.

Try something different together. Make suggestions and expand their horizons on screen. There are quizzes galore on Sporcle, or clever Wordle spin-offs like Quordle, Absurdle and Fibble.

Log on to a board game. Many family board games have virtual editions. Our family loves the Evolution app. Try Carcassonne, the forbidden island, the colonists of Catania or the game of life.

Go out together, separately. Online games can be a great way to spend time with your kids when you’re not with them. Kids may struggle to talk from a distance, but playing Minecraft or Cluedo together can be great fun, even from miles away.

The internet is a great place for families. It gives us new opportunities to experience the world, connect with others, and simply make our lives easier and more colorful. But it also comes with new challenges and complications for those raising future generations. Mozilla wants to help families make the best decisions online, no matter what, with our latest series, The technical speech.

Talk to your kids about online safety

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