Data points on video games and screen time for kids

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Kelda writes: 

“I wondered if you would be interested in doing a post on video games and
(young? elementary? all ages?) children. I’ve read some of what you’ve
written about technology and games and thought it made a lot of sense –
if still felt rather far from me and my own inclinations. (I grew up in
the US in the ’80s without a television – scandalously weird at the time,
but something I’m really grateful for now – and I am deeply ambivalent,
you might say, about screen-stuff in general). I have a 5 yo and a 2 yo,
both boys, and while neither of them are talking about things like
Minecraft now, I know it’s just a matter of time. Could we do a
data-points round up of your readers, of their various
responses/policies toward and feelings about games in general and
Minecraft in particular? I really trust the diverse and thoughtful
sensibilities of my fellow Moxites, and I would be SO grateful to have
things to think with about this.

Pros/cons? Boundary-setting? Different games and their plusses/minuses?
How games have changed family dynamics, better and worse? Tips for
navigating boundaries? Anything at all?!?

I feel like this – screen-time in general, games more specifically,
particular games even more narrowly – is one of the big and very new
challenges of parenting now, and I don’t know where to turn to think
through my own conflicting feelings. And I’d just as soon start thinking
about what my feelings are — and learn a bit more outside my box —
before my kid comes home clamoring for something I haven’t yet begun to
understand.”

I’m not sure there’s a Right answer here, just one that works for your family. 

I see video games as just another external amusement that people engage with, like books or movies or tv shows, that involve your eyes and brain more than your body. There are differences in the way we engage with books and tv, and there are differences in the way we engage with tv and video games, and books and video games. I’d also argue that there are differences in the way we engage with different kinds of books (reading non-fiction feels radically different from reading fiction to me and seems to be getting even more different as I get older). And I KNOW there are differences in the way we engage with different video games. 

So for me it makes no sense to lump playing Minecraft (which neither of my kids plays so my only familiarity with it is when my friends make cakes for their kids’ birthdays based on it) in with playing Wii Star Wars with playing Call of Duty with a parent with playing Words With Friends with playing Angry Birds. 

For me, personally, I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of the aspects of Call of Duty and the other first-person shooter (FPS) games BUT that is also because I knew I wasn’t going to be playing them along with my kids. I let my kids watch tv when they were little because we watched it together and talked about it (my kids are really good at picking apart the logical fallacies in commercials because we talked about them so much) and I feel like gaming needs similar apprenticing. I have friends who play FPS games with their kids and it’s bonding time for them, and they’re showing their kids how to navigate the boundaries of the story and reality.  I’m not willing to spend time doing that with FPS games because they don’t interest me. Angry Birds, though… We spent a lot of time playing that. (Which will totally come in handy when we need to break into a concrete structure using only birds and a slingshot.)

So essentially what I’m saying is that I think video games are really similar to any other thing that takes your kid out of the immediate physical world and into a story. Humans are hard-wired to create and immerse ourselves in narrative–this is just another form of that. But just as some people don’t like certain kinds of stories, people don’t like certain kinds of video game stories, and that’s fine. Spend some time playing or watching people play different types of video games to figure out which ones you are willing to play with your kids. And then at a certain point your kids will figure out which kinds of games they want to play and those might not be the ones you want to play, so you’ll have to observe and get opinions about when they’re old enough to get into those games without your supervision.

I’m betting you know a ton of adult gamers, so ask them which ones they play and if they’re appropriate for kids your kids’ ages, and what they’d suggest about how to start.  Ask Moxie reader and gamer Elaine writes and podcasts a lot about gaming and kids (“games are my parenting niche,” she says) and you can read her blog MOMOMGWTFBBQ and the column she writes at another gaming site.

But, like anything else, this is a process of developing your own house rules. If you don’t want your kids having certain kinds of engagement with narrative, then just say no. Or decide what your limits are for certain types of engagement. 

Readers, what do you do about gaming and screen time and time engaged in stories in general? 

14 thoughts on “Data points on video games and screen time for kids”

  1. I think Magda is pretty on point here. The right answer for games is the one that works for your family. For reference I’m 30, female, been playing games since I was 5, and now have two children ages 3.5 and 1.5.

    I have always been the kind of person who NEEDED to interact with my entertainment. I hate just watching TV or movies. I have to feel like I’m a part of what is going on which is why I pick video games as my primary entertainment source. All that being said there are some guidelines even I have about this sort of thing and general advice I can give.

    First, you need to hit http://www.esrb.org and look up the games your kid requests to play. That website will list every single reason a game is given the rating it is given in brutal detail. This isn’t just the short "graphic violence" description you get on the back of the box. This is the specific types of violence that are included. It’s a wealth of information that absolutely NO ONE uses.

    As for my kids I’m unique in that I know that content, I’ve played that game, and I’m comfortable saying no if I think the content is outside of their maturity level. This younger age group I stick with stuff rated E for Everyone or E 10+ (that one is mostly used when games are a little more cartoon violence or more challenging for kids to play). The tricky age is going to be that 11-13 year old range when they request to play M rated games that you may not be comfortable with them playing. I’m going to go on a case by case in that situation. We know our kids better than anyone. We know what they can handle and we know what we as parents are comfortable with. Make the ESRB website your friend.

    One last thing check in on your kids while they are playing games. My mom always did this and it was really important. She knew when I was pushing the rules or playing something I should because she would just randomly walk in the room and ask what I was up to. She also didn’t have to worry about me playing online which I feel is now a way bigger concern than any gun violence in a game.

    Sorry for the wall of text. I very rarely get to weigh in on a parenting thing that I actually know things about.

    -Elaine (@etdragon)

  2. As with anything, my experience is it will vary based on your kid’s temperament. DS (6.5) gets SUPER absorbed & has difficulty disconnecting – whether it be to pay attention to his body, or when it’s time to turn off the screen. DD (4.5) can happily watch or play for a while and then on her own walk away from it. Fits right in with their personalities overall.

  3. I too was raised with first no tv and then very minimal screen time (starting when I was 7); and I am extraordinarily grateful. My four-year old has seen a few videos at friend’s houses, and during a recent bout with the stomach flu we let her watch a few episodes of Mr. Rogers, but that’s it. As with all aspects of parenting that don’t involve abusive behavior, I think every family has to/should/has the right to make the decisions that work for them. For us, I feel very very very strongly about no screen time, particularly for young children. My husband loves video games, and (I think) plays them in ways that aren’t exactly healthy; so I’ll be interested to see what happens as my daughter gets older. We have a tv, but watch it only when my daughter is asleep, and even then only about once every few months. My soft spot is sports, so we’ll see what happens when the olympics start; she may see some tv then. But every time a commercial comes on, and every time I see her eyes glued to those twitchy fast-moving screens, something in me shudders. For me, it has to do with brain development, aesthetics, and politics. Again, though, this is about our family and our child; others strategies will work for others and that’s great. I do feel though, that some parents feel that they don’t have the right to set limits on games or tv, and that we absolutely do.

  4. I was also raised in the 70’s and 80’s without TV. At the time, I resented my parents making our family such freaks. But at the same time, my siblings and I grew up in a house packed with books and were ferocious little bookworms (as we still are.) So I am deeply grateful for the way I was raised.

    I am raising my kids without TV also. They figured out how to entertain themselves early on, so it has worked for us. I am pretty darn anti-screen time. Because I see that if it’s a choice between Minecraft and a book, most kids, including mine, are going to choose the screen. Not that I blame them; those screens are hugely seductive. But I don’t want screens to be the focus of my kids’ childhoods.

    They are 10 and 13 now. Our screen time policy is as follows: one weekly movie night. Plus, they have the opportunity to earn 30 minutes of Minecraft (which is what they like) per day. They do this by practicing their instruments for 30 minutes, or studying Hebrew. No super violent games. (Call of Duty will not be played in this family, not ever. What they do when they leave home is up to them.) Of course, they can use the computer for school research, etc. But that’s it. We are probably harder core in this department than anyone we know, but this works for us.

    Interestingly, my husband grew up the opposite from me, in a house where the TV was always on and that contained few books. But he was living without TV by the time we met and is perhaps even more invested in setting screen limits than me. We figure our kids have the rest of their live to play video games, if that’s what they really want. But this is the time to instill our values, one of which is, if you want to be entertained by someone else’s story, and it’s not movie night, and you’ve used up your screen time, read a book. Or I’ll read aloud to you.

  5. Because I subscribe to the "vaccination" theory re junk food, television, etc., we limit (maybe 30 minutes per day) but do not prohibit screen time, which has been pretty successful at my house. My 14 year old daughter and 13 year old son love to read and are very active athletically. However, another issue I’d like put out there is the social issue: gaming through a certain system (together in the same room or remotely) and talking about gaming is a huge activity for junior high (and younger boys). My son has a gaming system, but not the most popular one. He has had some difficulty at birthday parties where they bring in a big trailer with video games, since he doesn’t have the same gaming expertise as other boys. Also, he just can’t join in the conversations about gaming the more popular system. How have others handled this? He hasn’t begged for the popular system, and we’re in no hurry to give him one, but he is on the quiet side, and I worry that he is missing an important way to socialize.

  6. Anne, to answer your question about socializing: talking about TV was a big part of socializing when I was growing up. "Did you watch Mork and Mindy last night?!" Etc. I felt clueless because I didn’t know who the Fonz was, or Shaun Cassidy. But really, it didn’t blight my life. I found friends whose lives didn’t revolve around television, or who were perfectly willing to do and talk about other stuff that we had in common, like dressing up, or going to watch the commuter trains down at the tracks, or talking about that scandalous book, Forever. I think that if your son’s friends are true friends, they’ll include him in other ways.

  7. I have HUGE concerns about the amount of screens kids are exposed to now, and I disagree completely that tv/movies/books are all equal. Yes, they are stories, but watching tv is passive. Reading is not. It requires you to constantly engage with the text, interpret it, form your own conclusions, and use your imagination in ways that screens just do not. Most kids are going to choose screens over books if given the chance, though, because the people who make television and video games are fully aware of how to make it as seductive as possible. For that reason alone I wouldn’t let my kids watch a ton of TV. Video games are less passive, true, but I have concerns about the levels of violence in many of them. I don’t think we know enough yet about how kids process these things to know how first person shooter games, especially, may be problematic.

  8. Our data points:
    2 kids, DD 6 yo and DS 3yo
    Mom (me): WOH full time
    Dad: SAHD with part-time OOH work
    Grandma: lives next door and is very involved in day-to-day activites of the kids

    Both kids watch about 60 minutes of TV a day during dinner prep and after school. Little one plays about 30 minutes a week on his sisters old Mobi-go, my mom’s iPhone, and my phone. 1st grader plays almost no video games, although does use the computer about 30 minutes a week for websites like Starfall.

    We don’t purposely limit the video games since they haven’t shown much interest in them. We do limit the TV to 2 shows a day, with some exceptions. I can’t ever decide what I think about the TV time. They do all that TV watching at my mom’s house, since she picks them up after school and keeps them until we get home from work. I’ve gone under the idea that I will be forever grateful that my mom is next door and that some battles are not worth it. I fight the food/ snack battle. The TV one I’ve chosen to let go for the time being. But on the inside I waffle!

  9. My kids have only played a very limited number of games available on PBS kids (hardly the kind of thing that gets addictive!). We were very careful about screen time – no TV before 2, nothing more than 15 minutes until 3 or over, and then they watched half an hour a day. Now that the eldest is 5 he sometimes get more. I’m on my own with them a lot, and sometimes I parent with TV. Mostly they watch PBS shows, with very few exceptions. They’ve watched some Disney movies now, and thankfully don’t like them much. I’m kind of horrified by what goes on in some kids’ shows. No superhero themed things, and I restrict princess stuff too. But they learned all about superheroes at school anyway – and that’s fine, and now we talk about what superheroes do and don’t do (they help people, they don’t kill etc). I would love to get a Wii when they get older. I love video games myself, though my husband is one of those people who grew up without tv or video games – he was outside all the time and doesn’t want the boys to have them. So we’ll see. I went out to dinner once and saw a table with two families and 5 assorted kids. All the children – ages around 8 to 2 – were sitting there staring at a hand held screen of some kind. I mean, they each had their own. And while I’m pretty judgment free about whatever parents need to do to have a peaceful meal out, I was kind of shocked. Our kids have no access to phones, tablets, laptops, etc.

  10. I swore up and down and I was positive that my kids (age 6 and 4) had never played Angry Birds, or any other video game. But it turned out they had been playing it on our favorite babysitter’s phone. And also at a school friend’s birthday party. And again while staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Goes to show that it is easy to underestimate the actual amount of screen time our kids are actually getting. I’m probably not the only mom who thinks her kids don’t spend that much time gaming – and my former belief they were playing "never, not at all" was wrong.

    @Anne is spot on — by junior high, a lot of American boys are doing a ton of socializing through gaming. A very anti-screentime friend of mine was recently lamenting the fact that her 11 and 13-year-old boys were at a real social disadvantage because she had forbidden them from gaming. I’m a "vaccination" proponent, and a moderator not an abstainer, so I suggested to her (because she asked me) that a blanket ban was denying them the chance to work on their own choices and boundaries in a safe environment. In a few short years, when they’re out of the house, they’ll be able to play all the games they want. And they’re probably playing games behind her back anyway.

  11. My now 16 yo daughter was a dream come true for two bookish moms. There was nothing she liked better than being read to, and then when she learned how, to read herself. I started reading her chapter books before she was three, and we worked our way through all my childhood favorites by the time she learned to read and took off on her own. We were so proud that she had no exposure to screens at all until she was three years old, and then her screen time was very limited. We felt virtuous and it was clear to us that we were making Really Good Choices and that we were Obviously Terrific Parents and that our little bookish daughter was Clearly The Result of All That. Then our son came along. And in oh-so-many ways we have had to eat a ton of crow for all that smugness, because as it turns out, our daughter was Just Born That Way. OK, OK, I’m sure we had something to do with it, that we made great choices and were terrific parents and all that, but the reality is that it was just so EASY with her because she basically wanted exactly what we wanted her to want. Our son, on the other hand, engages with the world in such vastly different ways than the rest of us do. This has been such a blessing (not to mention incredibly humbling), but it has also been really really challenging because there’s almost nothing intuitive about it. Part of our son’s differences have to do with the fact that he has ADHD and learning disabilities. Part of it is the fact that he is a boy. Part of it is his personality — he is an extreme extrovert and cares above all else about his friends (and his cats; he’s also a very sensitive soul) — and the way his mind works — he is very much an inventor-explorer type, a let’s-take-it-apart-and-see-how-it-works kind of kid. And this boy LOVES his screens. He LOVES Minecraft, most of all when he can play with other kids. He loves Youtube, especially for finding how-to videos for making camping stoves out of soda cans, or for watching parkour and crazy urban trick bike riders. He loves TV shows about nature and science and animals. And almost none of this is interesting to me. Not in the least.

    When my daughter learned to read, she took off and there was no keeping up with her. I know parents who read all those great kids’ book series right along with their kids, even after their kids are reading on their own, but I wasn’t one of them. Partly because I’m not crazy about those books — even the ones I know are great — and partly because there was no way I could keep up, my daughter reads so fast. So occasionally I would check in with a children’s librarian friend, or google an author she was nuts about, or talk to her about what she was reading, but mostly I trusted that she was fine. I feel the same way about my son. We spot check what he’s watching, ask questions of him and grown-up friends who understand that world better than we do. We’ve actually hired one of my daughter’s friends — a teenaged gamer boy from her high school — to play Minecraft with our son because we know that kid and trust him and think he’s a terrific influence. And we do set some limits on who much and when, though honestly our son is pretty self-limiting if we give him free reign, mostly because he’d rather be playing with friends outside, building stuff, going fishing, riding bikes and skateboards, whenever that’s an option. Usually a playdate involves some amount of screen time and a larger amount of that other stuff, and it doesn’t require too much oversight from us.

    Among the reasons I’ve come to feel OK with our son’s love of screens is that it’s very much part of the culture of his peers, AND it’s a culture he loves, and I don’t want to deny him fluency in that culture. We could and probably should do more to teach him to be critical and analytical when it comes to his culture (and we do talk to him about it, especially about violence and we do have some limits when it comes to guns), but I try to make sure that there are teens and adults in his screen life who I trust and who have good judgment about these things.

  12. Hello!

    I have a 3 year old and a 5 year old. They get videos (we don’t have cable) probably every third day or so when it fits into the rhythm of the day and we love watching a movie together on Fridays. I grew up watching many hours of television a day. It wasn’t until my 30s that I learned how to make things and do a few sports. Now I look around and feel like Dorothy when Toto pulled the curtain back – TV, videos, video games – they’re just not in the same universe of worthwhile as so so so many other things. And they don’t make you feel good when you’re done. My girls are happiest when they are making things, working with me or their dad, or playing with each other or their friends.

  13. We have three kids: seven, four, and one. Their dad and I both grew up without any video games in the house (unless you count Mario Teaches Typing on the computer, ha ha). I was only allowed to watch PBS for a long time, but I watched about two hours every school day (almost none on weekends). Our kids watch between a half hour and an hour of PBS most, but not all school days, and usually no tv on weekends. They use the "kids’ iPad" a couple times a month to play math games. My husband has expressed interest in getting a video game system, but I have vociferously objected. I asked him to tell me what activity they do now that he feels video games should replace–reading, practicing piano, playing outside, playing imaginative games with each other? Yeah, no. In theory, video games could replace tv time, but only the oldest could really play, and we only have one tv, so it wouldn’t do much for the other two (yes, I know the 1-year-old is not supposed to be watching tv, and she really doesn’t pay much attention to it, but she is in the same room). I’m sure we’ll have to revisit this when they get older, but I’m really going to try to hold out as long as I can.

  14. My son will be 2 in January. When things get very hard and we’re at the end of the rope we’ll watch YouTube videos of tractors or helicopters. There is some great footage of each — no narrative story, no person talking (well, some of our favorite tractor videos are in German). He LOVES this time, and it’s a powerful reward, which both amuses and kind of unsettles me. I’d say we pull out YouTube tractor or helicopter videos (occasionally owl or honeybee footage, as both of those are favorites) about 30-40 minutes a week total.

    We’ve also occasionally watched Mr. Rogers episodes with him.

    On airplanes, we’ve used some iPad game apps that he likes.

    Trying hard to figure out what will be our philosophy on this. Not sure we’ve figured it out. We’re both much bigger readers (about 15 hours/week) than we are TV watchers (about 2 hours/week) but we also like video games.

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