Why is it that children who struggle to put effort into difficult work at school are often able to persist and succeed while playing a challenging video game? Child psychologists and pediatricians are often asked by parents who observe this phenomenon in their children why this might be. In my work as a child clinical psychologist, I have observed that many kids with ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and autism can master games and the strategies necessary to “beat” them. Our five-year-old research project, conducted with the parents of these kids, indicates that kids are not only learning game-based skills, but also skills that can help them outside of the game. However, many parents remained concerned that playing video games is bad for their children. Furthermore, those parents with kids who are diagnosed with ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and Autism Spectrum Disorders are even more worried.
Concurrently, evidence suggests that excessive gaming can increase inattention. Parents often observe struggling learners avoiding their schoolwork in lieu of playing video games or engaging in some other screen-based activity. As a result, many parents attempt to ban or at least severely limit the use of video games and other technologies.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time, if not video game play, has become a daily requirement. Eliminating screen time is not optional. And elective or recreational online video game play has become a substitute for face to face peer interactions.
The reality of life in a digital world is that engagement with screen-based technologies such as video games, television, the internet, and cell phones is, and will no doubt continue to be, necessary for children’s participation in their social, educational, and future vocational worlds. Educators refer to the need for “digital literacy,” which includes the ability to understand digital information, access information effectively, and evaluate, analyze, and use media. This is a core 21st century skill that students will need for college and the jobs of the future.
While there are ways in which screen time can be managed during the pandemic, restricting struggling learners from age-appropriate technologies is probably not a great idea. Parents still need to understand how to use technologies like video games to help a struggling learner.
Are There Social Benefits?
From a social standpoint, it is probably helpful for children to have some awareness of popular television shows such as SpongeBob Squarepants or to know about the latest and most popular video games that kids their age play. For example, an elementary school child’s knowledge of the game Minecraft could help them socialize with their peers around a shared topic of interest. Restricting children from age-appropriate technologies may isolate them from communicating in today’s world. The goal is to balance this interaction with other meaningful activities that encourage socialization.
The social components of video games, cell phones, and the Internet are powerful but also have their hazards. Access for children with limited coping skills could open the door to negativity, cyber-bullying, and emotional distress online. Parents need to check in with their children frequently and keep conversations open about their social relationships online to ensure that they are positive and rewarding.
What About My Child’s Schoolwork?
Outside of the social benefits, video and computer games can be extremely helpful in learning academic skills such as math and science. On an informal basis, curious kids can learn an incredible amount by going online and pursuing an interest. There are also myriad apps that are designed to help children with all school subjects, ranging from core skills like math and reading to creative classes like art and music.
However, using technology for educational purposes requires a child to have strong focus skills. Children can easily get distracted, become engaged with inappropriate material, or simply waste their time. Many children are far more willing to practice academic skills when given an engaging app or website rather than a worksheet from their textbook.
So What Can Parents Do?
While the question of whether video games are good for children is complex, there are a few simple guidelines to follow in allowing children’s use of video games:
Set meaningful limits on digital play time.
While you might want to modify these recommendations for the remainder of the pandemic, here are my suggestions for non-COVID-19 pandemic recreational video game play:
Preschoolers – Less than 1 hour a day, always with supervision.
Elementary school students – 1 to 1-½ hours a day (including television time), always with parental knowledge of content.
Middle school students – 1-½ to 2 hours a day (including television and cell-phone time). This is the most vulnerable age for abuse, so monitor carefully.
High school students – 2 to 2-½ hours a day and more if this is social or academic in nature.
Model appropriate technology use.
Balance your own physical, social, educational, family, and technology activities as an example for a child. If children see their parents engaging in hobbies or non-screen-based activities, they may be more likely to seek out those activities as well.
Make technology social.
Set the expectation that technologies be used with others rather than in a solitary manner so that the majority of your child’s gaming is with other children and/or family members. Have a family game night where everyone participates in a cooperative or multiplayer game such as Mario Party, Overcooked 2, or Just Dance 2021.
Learn more about your children’s gaming interests.
What ways do you include screen-time in your family activities? Share your thoughts in the comments below!