I am a child clinical psychologist, and while my five children might argue that you could find better advice elsewhere (I do know that they love me, anyway), the parents of my patients often ask me for recommendations on child-rearing practices. One of the most common questions they ask is how to limit kids’ video game, social media, and technology use. I routinely caution parents that they need to recognize the individuality of each of their children and tailor their parenting approach accordingly, but there are some general rules that apply to all children when it comes to video game and technology use. You might think that as the founder of an educational technology company, my answer to queries about limiting digital play would be, “Don’t.” This is not the case!
First, the most important activities for the health and well-being of kids (and their parents) do not involve technology. Kids need to be outdoors, physically active, engaged in face-to-face interactions with peers, and learning from real-world experiences. Secondly, there are many kids, particularly those with learning, attentional, and social difficulties, who gravitate toward digital media, engage in too much screen time, and become overly-absorbed in these technologies because they serve as a source of self esteem, comfort, and connection to others. Lastly, there are very legitimate risks and dangers that accompany media use, and the risk of inappropriate content requires that adults be involved in their children’s consumption of media.
I suggest three broad strategies to guide parents in setting effective limits to their children’s video game and technology use.
- Encourage a balanced “Play Diet”
Children learn about their world primarily through their play time. Digital play (video games, apps, social media, technology use) is a modern form of play and as such is a powerful opportunity for children’s learning about today’s world. Other play activities, however, are equally, if not more important. All children need a balanced Play Diet that consists of Physical Play, Social Play, Creative Play, Unstructured Play, and Digital Play. (By the way, parents need this balance as well!)
- Play with your kids
Parents need to be involved in their children’s digital play — and not only as the authority who limits technology use. Parents should play with their kids, watch what they do and talk to them about it in order to help them to optimize their learning from digital play. Applying the things they learn in games to the real world can have lasting effects that lead to real success in academics and beyond.
- One size does NOT fit all when it comes to limiting video game and technology use
Set limits based upon your child’s development, the value of the content, and your own experience. Just as modern teaching applies the concept of “differentiated instruction,” where the needs of each individual child are taken into account in an educational setting, limit-setting for games and technology use needs to be differentiated. I suggest parents arrive at this formula by considering their own sensibilities (what feels right), their children’s possible developmental issues (age of the child, what types of games and technologies are appropriate, and how much access can they handle), and content (is there any value to the content they are consuming). For example, if the content is clearly educational, and your child is learning, don’t be overly concerned about screen time. If you don’t see value immediately, you might think about looking at some of LearningWorks for Kids playbooks to get an idea of the hidden benefits of some of the games and apps your child is already playing. Even a game like Angry Birds has value, even if it isn’t immediately evident!
Setting Limits is an on-going series that explores an arcade-full of topics related to setting effective limits on video games, screen time, and digital media. The series addresses issues and offers strategies for setting schedules, controlling access, and selecting appropriate games and media. In the future, look for posts about video game addiction, helping parents create healthy Play Diets, learning how to engage in digital play with your kids, using game play time as a reward, and setting limits on specific games like Minecraft for kids with ADHD and Autism. For more in the series, read our contribution to the debate about whether children with ADHD and Autism should play video games, and then our list of 8 reasons why children with Autism should engage in digital play.