How do I limit my child's video game time? A modern parent's dilemma.
It seems like this problem has outgrown other parenting issues. I regularly participate in a live TV educational program for parents of schoolchildren, and lately all the viewers ask me this question:
"My 11-year-old plays video-games 12 hours each day. If I try to take his phone, he becomes aggressive. What should I do?"
Parents feel bad when they watch their children play video games for hours, wasting time that should be spent playing sports or doing homework. If they try to intervene, the kids loudly protest: “You’re behind the times and you’re making a big deal over nothing. All kids play them!” they argue. They hardly get up from the couch, even preferring to eat in front of the computer rather than at the kitchen table.
Is it really harmless for a child or a teenager to sit in front of a screen the entire day, shooting at imaginary dragons and giants? Won’t this bring out aggressive tendencies in them, which will show up much later on—and won’t it then be too late? What will be the long-term effect of shooting games on children who are too young to have all of their moral filters activated?
Children aren’t the only ones who can fall victim to this addiction. Many young adults spend a great deal of their time playing video games—sometimes even time they should be spending on difficult but important tasks that will allow them to become responsible for their own lives and decisions. Some young adults, especially those with low self-esteem, may feel so overwhelmed by this prospect that they retreat into video games to escape their worries and soothe themselves. With the coming of Metaverse, they may find it even easier to lose themselves in the virtual world. Trying to make them reduce the amount of time they spend gaming may be a difficult task. As a parent of an adult child, you have very little authority to demand they stop, but you should ensure you don’t enable them.
I remember a mother who once came to me for help, saying that her twenty-eight-year-old son had dropped out of school at sixteen to play video games. The boy’s father had left two years later due to the crises his son’s addiction created, and since then, the boy had never worked, nor returned to school. All day long, and most nights too, he was immersed in video games. This had gone on for more than twelve years, and now, she wanted to know what to do! Yet when I suggested she stop enabling him and let the young man suffer the consequences of his addiction, she said she couldn’t, fearing his violent outbursts. I offered her support in setting boundaries with her son, along with therapy for her own codependence; but she chose not to accept.
Most guidelines about limitation of screen time you can find online will consider only screen time. You'll need to define when, where, and how screens are allowed. For example, you could set up a rule to disallow screen use during meals, such as dinner or lunch. Limit activities that involve using a screen. Make sure you and your child limit activities that include screens unless they are essential.
The problem is, such guidelines only account for the physical consequences of excessive gaming, like:
Problems with musculoskeletal system (back and neck pain, wrist pain).
Problems with eyes (strain, fatigue, dry eyes).
And partially, loss of time for other important activities.
They do not, however, take into account the contents of the games and other internet-based activities, that can adversely affect the psychological development of a child or young adult, such as:
Video-game addiction (see My child plays aggressive video games all the time. Is this an addiction?)
Social media addiction (see What makes social media addictive?)
Social isolation and withdrawal from real-life relationships
What can parents do?
Being a parent is a tough job. It’s nice when you cuddle a baby looking at you with admiration and love in their eyes, but it always gets tough when the boundaries have to be set. Those who are insecure and perfectionistic in their approach to parenting may shy away from setting boundaries, because they are afraid of their kids’ aggressive reaction. But make no mistake. Setting boundaries is as much a deed of love and as necessary as nurture and praise. It needs to be done, because in reality, we all have some sort of limitation, and the kids need to be taught that this is a non-negotiable fact of life, not their parent’s whim.
It’s the parents’ job to teach their children emotional self-regulation and boundaries. They do so by example, rather than by preaching. Every family has a set of rules by which their members respect the others’ territories and deal with difficult feelings.
Video-game addiction is a disease with severe consequences, so it is better to prevent it than to cure it. There are some sound rules that should be put in place in the family to prevent things from escalating:
Set a family agreement on which games can be played, when, and for how long. Hold each other accountable for sticking to the rules.
Keep a firm rule against gaming during other activities, in-person or virtual.
Confine game consoles to communal rooms (kids with consoles in their bedrooms log more than triple the play time).
Consider programming all computers to “lock down” during certain hours.
When everyone retires, put smartphones to bed in a different room.
Require that everyone get the whole family’s permission before downloading any new video games or apps.
Find ways to make life worthwhile in the real world. People who are accomplishing meaningful things in real life rarely feel much need to turn to video games for vicarious accomplishment.
How do I stop my child from playing games if he becomes aggressive? (see My child plays aggressive video games all the time. Is this an addiction?)
The aggressive reaction of a player, when you try to restrict their access to the game, is a clear sign of addiction. This means that the best time to take action is lost. Before that, it would have been possible to discuss and reason with the child to teach him or her to limit the activity, and that this is in their best interest. But where addiction has already developed, professional help will be needed. For long-term recovery, the whole household will need strict limits on technology use. It may hurt to reduce your own computer or video-game time, but it’s important for minimizing relapse temptations—and for helping the child with the addiction feel supported and understood, rather than being the “weak one” singled out for humiliating restrictions.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.