Developmentally Healthy Play Diet: Ages 14+

Unlike younger children, teens tend to participate in more social and digital play. When I ask typical teenagers what their favorite activity is the first response is invariably, “hang out with my friends.” Teenagers tend to focus on social play, spending time with their peers as friends often replace family as their primary sources of interaction and information about their world.

In these years, the presence of digital play as a larger component of an adolescent’s play diet is sensible. A teenager’s social play is often facilitated through texting and Facebook. Digital play is also a preparation for involvement in a technological world in which skills such as word processing, researching information through the Internet, and using technology in an innovative fashion are often required.

A  healthy play diet for teens is characterized by its social nature. While parents may be uncomfortable with their teenagers’ increasing independence and autonomy, it is healthy for teens to form strong allegiances to their peers and to feel that their friends are the most important people in their lives. Teenage years are often the beginning of long-term relationships.

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The following play diet recommendations offer developmentally healthy activities for children 14 and older across the five types of play — social, active, creative, free and digital play:

Social Play

The number one activity that teenagers cite when asked what they like to do is “hang out” with their friends. They may spend time listening to music, playing games, talking, or taking walks together. Social play often involves social media and electronic communication.

Active Play

Teenagers tend to have much more say over the type of physical activity in which they engage. Rather than having their parents sign them up for a sports team they become more selective about the sports or physical activities in which they participate. It is still important to have an expectation that teenagers be involved in some form of regular exercise, which might mean belonging to a gym or a rock climbing club or providing them with rides to a skateboard park or local pool.

Creative Play

Creativity may involve further pursuit of artistic interests. Teenagers are more apt to put forth effort in playing a musical instrument, learning to paint, or becoming engaged in the theater. Digital tools seem to have nurtured a revival of creative opportunities for non-artistic teens, with many teens enjoying “modding” of games, creating websites, learning programming language to create games, and writing blogs or fanfiction sites.

Free Play

Teenagers engage in free play in a very different fashion than when they were younger children. They may “hang out” with their peers unsupervised by their parents or spend time pursuing a newfound interest. They may also choose to engage in some type of mastery play that is not guided by others.

Digital Play

Teenagers in today’s world rely upon what we broadly call “digital play” as their major lifeline to their peers as well as for understanding their world. Whether it be listening to the newest music, knowing the latest relationship status of their peers, or playing a Facebook game with their friends, many of their connections to the world are through digital media. In today’s digital world hanging out with friends may mean doing so in cyberspace rather than in someone’s basement — going on Xbox Live with a group of friends, or Facebooking, texting, tweeting, and using other social networking services to connect and interact with friends.

The issue of parental supervision of teenagers’ video play and other digital-technology use is a serious concern. Even with teenagers who have demonstrated responsible use, it is still necessary to have regular conversations about safe and acceptable use of video games, Internet and digital media. Video-game play among st teenagers is also an area where family-value and developmental issues need to be taken into account. The reality in today’s world is that M-rated games (Content suitable to ages 17 and up) are played by a large majority of teenagers. While the research data suggest that very few teenagers are adversely affected by playing M-rated games, it is still incumbent upon parents to acknowledge their own feelings about these games as well as to recognize the ramifications involved in purchasing these games.

We strongly suggest that parents of teenagers monitor not only how much their teenagers play video games but also encourage them to play a variety of types of video games. Rather than simply playing the newest version of Elder Scrolls or Assassins Creed for hours on end, we encourage playing a variety of different game genres. This is likely to require the use of different parts of the brain and practice a variety of executive-functioning skills.

Digital-play strategies for children ages 14 and up:

  • Talk to your teens. Conversation, modeling, and good decision making are seen as the primary strategies for parents of older teenagers. This is due in part to the increasing accessibility to everything that is available online and through digital media for many teenagers. It is very hard to prevent teenagers who want to get inappropriate material from doing so, particularly those who have access to smartphones, a private computer, or friends’ homes where they have this type of availability. It is better for them to become responsible digital citizens and to have ongoing conversations about this issue.

  • Monitor and limit the amount of screen time when necessary. While supervision from content is very difficult, it may be somewhat easier to monitor the amount of access time to the Internet with digital media. This is particularly important for children who have tendencies towards overusing digital media. Children who have attention, learning, social-communicative, and anxiety and depression issues may tend to overuse digital media, and it is important to set effective limits for them that may have to be strict and easily-enforced. In cases where there is serious overuse this might mean keeping the router in a parent’s bedroom, shutting off the home Internet access at 9 p.m. or contacting the teenager’s cell-phone provider to set limits on the youngster’s use.

  • Model appropriate media behavior with your child. This could include simple rules such as not being rude to others by not using your cell phone when in a group setting, limiting your time sitting in front of the television, and routinely being engaged in a variety of activities.

  • Recognize when there is too much digital time. Parents often ask how much they should allow their children who are 14 years old or older to play video games or have “screen time.” I believe that parents should focus on ensuring that their teenagers have a good balance of play activity, although in today’s world teenagers often combine social play with social, active, and free play. Limits on digital play should focus on digital play that is isolating and done in the confines of one’s room rather than involved with other people. Pay attention to poor school performance, a disconnect with peers, and a lack of physical activity as signs for overuse.

Recommended games and apps:

 Part of our series on Play Diet recommendations:

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