Many parents reading this question will be nodding their heads in full understanding of what this mum is facing, desperately wanting to know the panacea to the seemingly endless interest that our children have in gaming. Lockdown has necessitated greater screen time and fuelled even more interest in on-screen entertainment. Research shows that, whilst there are plenty of girl gamers around, boys have the larger appetite for it and view it as an essential aspect of socialisation and friendship.
When parenting in a pandemic, we can feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to do what is best for our children’s wellbeing whilst wanting to ensure that their entire life isn’t lived out online.
First of all, let’s start with the parent’s assertion that gaming time needs to be curtailed. It is impossible to provide guidance on this without understanding the other demands on a child’s life. How long do they spend online every day doing school work? Do they have regular breaks? Are they spending lunchtimes with siblings and parents each day?
Start by sitting down with your child and looking at the whole picture. Deep down, most children understand that balance is generally a good thing and that too much of one thing is ill-advised. It is important to start your chat from this premise. On agreeing that balance is key, the next stage of the discussion can include taking a holistic view of what your child’s week ahead looks like. When it is written down, in black and white, children are able to see that six hours in front of a screen, followed by three playing Fortnite may not be that conducive to feeling good.
Children may be more amenable to amending their schedule to include a diversity of activities, when they know you aren’t against gaming per se, but are simply trying to make sure that they also have time to do other activities that might benefit them and that they normally enjoy. Assume a coaching approach. Ask them if they think there is a good balance of enjoyable activities on and offline. Ask them what other activities they might like to do that are not online. They might need some nudging here. If they can’t think of anything, you could give them our list of 100 Ideas to Try if You Feel Bored and suggest that they choose at least 3-5 activities to do each day from this list to add into their timetable. Chores, family time (perhaps one fun game per day), helping with dinner, contacting a family member to cheer them up or taking the dog for a walk, are all activities that take time and should naturally be embedded into children’s daily schedules. They might choose when they do some of these tasks, but they should do them.
Ultimately, gaming is a treat activity. Have they done their homework, taken a break outside and done their chores? Try to nudge them towards self-regulation too. Suppose you decide to allow them one hour per day gaming once they have finished their long school day of remote learning. Perhaps they could ‘sign out’ their device and then return and sign it back in at the end of their allotted time. Praise them for being responsible, mature and able to regulate their own screen time.
The reassuring, albeit counter-intuitive, fact, is that gaming is not harmful to children, provided that they are playing age-appropriate games, safely. We know that sitting in one position for hours on end can affect eyesight and posture, but research suggests that gaming itself is not the issue.
Talk to them about the games that they love to play, maybe even when you are out for a walk. What do they enjoy about it? What strategies are they using? How do they treat other players in the game? What is exciting about it? What are their goals within it? By reaching in, we show our children that we care about them and what goes on within their digital world. We have an opportunity here to talk about wider issues relating to digital life, such as the importance of being a great digital citizen, digital hygiene and digital resilience.
At the weekends, they likely have a reasonable case for more time spent gaming, but again, it should be an activity that is enjoyed following a tick-off of other activities in family life. Now is definitely the time to innovate. As a family, can you have a sports challenge with friends? Can you swap skills? Can you try to learn a new skill or sport over lockdown?
Model the attitude that you want to see. Talk about the things that are hugely enjoyable about being online, but also articulate when you know you need to turn off the laptop and do something else. Ask your children to help you regulate your online behaviour, so that the whole family is supporting one another to move towards that ideally balanced digital diet.