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Tackle the Tech

7 Smart Tips for Safe Video Game Use—and the Option to Opt-Out!

This is a guest post from Tyler Davis, COO of Better Screen Time. See Tyler's bio at the bottom of the page for more information.

We've all heard the horror stories about kids and video games: 

  • Spending countless hours in front of a screen 
  • Losing interest in all other activities 
  • Exposure to inappropriate content 
  • Meeting strangers online

The list goes on—and these dangers are very real.

We also remember having a lot of fun playing video games as kids. Many of us still enjoy some game time because the truth is— video games are fun!

So why are games such a problem now? Why am I, as a parent, concerned about the stories I've heard and unsure of what to do? What do I do when my child begs for the latest game or game hardware?

What changed? Stopping cues

One simple reason for this dilemma is that the video games our children play are much different from the video games we played as kids. Notably, they are missing one key component: stopping cues. Let me give you an example of a stopping cue.

An example from the '80s

As a kid, my parents provided access to a computer and a fun game called Thexder. When I first started playing this game, I was thrilled by how well it worked, how fun it was, and those amazing graphics! It was almost like being at an arcade.

It was also a challenging game. I didn't make much progress during my first few attempts, so I hatched a plan to wake up an hour early one school day to squeeze in some extra play time. My parents were quite surprised to find me on the computer in the early, dark hours of a winter school morning.

After that, I dedicated every moment of my play time to Thexder, but no matter how hard I tried I could never progress past the second level of the game. It was just too hard for me, and that became my stopping cue. So after a few more days of frustrated attempts, I quit trying. I went back to play time with my friends, my bike, the trampoline, and other toys and hobbies.

This example is not what happens with kids today.

Modern video games and persuasive design

Since the '80s, computers and video games have improved in every conceivable way. The companies that produce them can make huge profits, which of course entices them to do everything in their power to keep people playing games for as long as possible. That means gaming companies actively study, and work to eliminate, all stopping cues using persuasive design

Examples of persuasive design

  1. Is the game too hard? Purchase a power-up that immediately helps you progress.
  2. Is the game getting boring? Regularly introduce new features and content.
  3. Becoming lonely? Play with your friends online!

Games can also send reminders inviting offline players to re-engage, or use time-based cues to encourage players to schedule more time for play.

Even if all these techniques fail and a player decides to move on from one game, thanks to the internet they have instant access to a selection of more games than they will ever have time to play. 

So the cycle immediately starts anew. With eager, energetic, and innocent minds, our children stand little chance of keeping video games in check on their own.


The parent's role

The responsibility for helping children keep video game use safe falls squarely on parents. As with other aspects of life, we must teach our kids healthy behaviors, enforce safe boundaries, and actively promote other positive hobbies and forms of entertainment. 

We cannot expect our children to learn this on their own, or to be guided safely by the gaming industry.

 7 tips to promote healthy video game use in your home

  • Rigorously enforce time limits. Keeping game time to an hour or less per day will teach your children to break away from the persuasive design elements of modern games; will help them avoid addictions; and will allow them to develop interests in other forms of entertainment and hobbies.
  • Utilize parental controls on devices and gaming services. These make enforcing time limits much easier than a verbal request to turn the game off. Similarly, set internet time limits on your home's WiFi to put boundaries on when games can be played. We use the Gryphon router and love how it makes taking control of the internet at home a breeze.
  • Limit play to games you have selected with your kids. Let them show you how a game works, what types of social interactions it allows, its content rating, etc. Let them know that games you do not approve of are off limits.
  • Arrange your home so that video games are played in public areas. Children and adults alike will avoid making bad choices when their actions are observed by others. This also gives you a chance to observe the nature of the games being played, and to make corrections to which games are allowed if necessary.
  • Avoid using screen time as a reward. Positioning games or screen time as a reward trains us to value them above other activities. Instead, make games one of many options for entertainment available after school work, housework, and other responsibilities are completed.
  • Communicate boundaries. Spend time talking with your kids about what you consider a healthy amount of time playing video games, which types of games are appropriate, and the boundaries that you will enforce.
  • Spend some time playing video games with your kids! Doing so gives you time to bond, opportunities to teach good etiquette, and how to be safe from porn, predators, and bullies. You might have some fun, too.

Related: “Can I Play This?” Video Game Decisions Made Easy in 4 Quick Steps

Our approach

In our own home we have chosen to mostly avoid video games. We have no video game console, so game time for our kids is limited to simple games that can be played in a web browser a few times per week. Opting out of video games is a real possibility, and plenty of other options exist for kids who love computers and electronics. For example they can join a robotics club, learn to write software, or play physical games that teach electronics theory like Snap Circuits, Turing Tumble, and Spintronics.

Don't worry, you can do this!

Reigning in video game play time can feel like a big job, but with some up-front effort you'll soon find that screen time battles with your children become less frequent and less severe.

You are the parent! Yes, you'll have to say "no" a lot, but by providing training and boundaries you’ll also teach your children to self-govern and give them opportunities to develop many other skills and interests. Soon you’ll see them expand their horizons, and you will say "yes!"

Take action today

  • Download our comprehensive guides. Access valuable resources from Better Screen Time and Defend Young Minds to support your tech parenting journey. These guides will help you manage screen time, implement digital safety, and discuss sensitive topics like pornography with your kids.

  • Connect with us on social media. Get more tips on our social pages and to connect with other parents facing similar challenges.
    Better Screen Time Instagram | Defend Young Minds Instagram

Together, we can create a healthier digital environment for our kids.

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