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When Are Video Games Good for Kids?

“Yeeessss! There’s going to be another Fortnite Day!” I heard a child exclaim in the hallway of my kids’ school last month. Confused, I turned to a teacher for an explanation. He responded “I think they mean snow day…” The kids were eagerly anticipating yet another giant storm (yes, we live in Minnesota and yes, there are snow days in April) and their re-brand of the day presumably reflected their plans.

Whether it is a snowday, weekday, or weekend – kids across the country fill a lot of their free time with gaming. Despite it being such a popular pastime though (over 90% of children and teens in the U.S. play video games), parents are often ambivalent about its impact. As children grab the controllers and settle in, many worry that they will start choosing gaming over everything else.

Two children laying on rug playing video games together.

Video or Internet addiction or “problematic interactive media use,” is certainly a real problem for some kids. Even for kids who don’t play too much, power struggles over game time are a near universal part of 21st century parenting and it is easy for gaming to take over a child’s free time.

That doesn’t mean that every child who picks up the controller or swipes across their screen will end up gaming alone, choosing gaming over homework, extra-curricular, hygiene, or school.

Take Walid for example. He loves gaming and is learning how to code at school. He plays regularly with two of his best friends online and loves the collaborative challenge of gaming worlds. Walid gets to see his gaming friends at soccer practice after school and in Lego Robotics.

The overwhelming majority of young gamers play games like Walid does. They do their homework, keep up their responsibilities, have other interests, and game with friends. We hear a lot about video game addiction in the news, but what about the overwhelming number of young people for whom gaming is a healthy part of their lives? What do we know about them?

When do kids get the most out of video games?

A group of researchers recently published a study exploring just that – the protective factors that enable youth to enjoy healthy game play. It turns out that many of the skills and habits that children practice offline, help them stay healthy online. Teens who have strong emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and good friendships tend to get the most from games.

What does that mean for us? Helping our kids develop emotional regulation skills and strengthening relationships could be useful strategies for ensuring that game play is just a fun activity rather than a harmful one.

Another recent study supports this idea. Researchers found that families who just turned off games to address addictive behaviors weren’t nearly as successful as those who found alternative ways for their kids to experience competence and connectedness.

If you find yourself wondering and worried about your child’s gaming life, here are a few bright spots to look for that make a huge difference:

Your kids’ gaming friends are good for them

Acknowledging that gaming is a good activity for relationship building, especially for boys, is important. A recent study found that 57% of boys say they make their online friends through gaming. Before we immediately start worrying, “But who are these so-called ‘friends??!!!” – it turns out that these friendships provide a giant buffer for our kids from the negative effects of excessive gaming.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that gamers who were more socially active online reported far fewer symptoms of video game addiction. They argue that some of the downsides of gaming may be balanced out in those who are socially engaged either online or in real life.The opposite – aggressive, competitive gameplay against strangers online, is associated with negative outcomes. The research is clear, we don’t want our kids to navigate the virtual world alone.

In this spirit, whether or not parents want to believe that gaming friends are “real friends,” our kids are decidedly benefitting from these relationships.

Start by having a conversation with your child:

  • Do you know anyone else in your gaming world? Who? How?
  • What do you like about playing with them?
  • How do you stay in touch with them?
  • How do you treat one another?
  • Would you say that you know most of the people you play with?
  • How many are strangers?
  • Where else do you see your gaming friends?

These kinds of questions help us get beyond simple and sometimes universal advice that focuses on just getting kids to “just play less” and also focus on an important question for all kids: “Are you connected? Or alone?”

Your kid needs you to build bridges between gaming and the real world

In her book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, researcher Jane McGonigal argues that games don’t inevitably make players more anxious, depressed, and addicted. Instead, she presents a wealth of research about the positive transformative effects of games. McGonigal does acknowledge that the research indicates playing too much is associated with depression and anxiety, lower grades and social isolation. However, under that tipping point, she argues that one of the key drivers of outcomes for gamers is not how much but why they play games.

Namely, are gamers playing to escape their real lives or to make their real lives better?

This framework helps us build that connection around games that research shows is so helpful.. We can approach our gamers with more curiosity and help them build bridges between their gaming worlds and their real one. McGonigal suggests a few helpful questions.

  • What are you most proud of in this game so far? How did you accomplish that? What kinds of skills and strategies did you use to do this?
  • What are your strategies for winning? How did you come up with those? Can you use them anywhere else in your life?
  • How do you find motivation to not give up?
  • What do you think this game makes you good at? Where else could you use those skills?
  • I read today that gamers are better at [X] than non-gamers. Do you think this is true for you?

These kinds of “bridging questions” ultimately help tether your child’s gaming world to real world skills, situations, and relationships.

McGonigal also encourages caring adults to ask the most important question of them all: “Can I play with you?”

But what about the negative effects of video games?

Paying attention to strengths and boosting protective factors doesn’t mean that you should ignore signs of gaming addiction or that you shouldn’t set limits or pay attention to the violent content of games.

It does mean that for the 90% of young people who are playing video games, more of them could use meaningful conversations with caring adults who are committed to helping them build bridges between the virtual and the real worlds, practice emotional regulation skills, and nurture a set of warm relationships online and offline.

Does this mean that power struggles over games disappear? Does it mean that a magical land of gaming family harmony is out there just waiting for each of us? I won’t rule it out, but more likely we will continue to have good days and bad days.

Telescoping out from the-come-to-dinner arguments, there is a longer term goal out there of raising some good humans. Focusing on nurturing relationships and building bridges might yield more young people who are gaming to make their lives better and know how to use their gaming strengths and superpowers out in the world.