How to limit screen time and help your gamer build healthy habits
A parent and gaming expert offers some easy ways to help your children develop lasting, healthy gaming habits.
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I’ve been playing video games for over three decades, turning what once was a hobby into a writing career. I remember the clashes I’d have with my own parents back in the day, ranging from how long I could play to what games I could play to my mood while playing. Fun fact: They used to keep my consoles plugged into an outlet controlled by a light switch, so if I wasn’t listening to them, my progress was lost with a single flip.
What I didn’t know then (and what my parents didn’t know) was that there was a science behind what was keeping me glued to my games, and it takes more than a light switch to overcome it. But if game designers can use human behavior studies to build games, the same approach could also help us build daily habits with our kids to raise healthy gamers. Once you understand how screen time, dopamine and serotonin work together, you can build better gaming habits and set some clear boundaries for your little gamers.
Here’s your light switch.
Set time limits.
How much time your child can spend gaming per day is different for each family, but it’s good to have a general idea where the baseline is.
Try this: If you don’t already know how much time your kids spend gaming per day, consider tracking it. Native apps within smartphones can help track this activity. Explore Screen Time on your iOs device, or set up Digital Wellbeing on Android, and see if your child’s game time falls within the suggested limits. If you need help shutting down games after a certain time each evening, or the Smart Family app can also help you set data and Wi-Fi limits.
Supervised play only.
This one seems obvious, but the primary strategy is to simply observe as your child plays their favorite game. Whether they use the living room TV for console gaming or play tablet games sitting with you on the couch, being around your child as they enjoy their favorite games will start to build your knowledge base.
Try this: If you don’t know what to look for, you won’t know when to pull the plug. So get in the game. Research shows playing games with your kids has some benefits, too. Soon you’ll be able to differentiate between games like Candy Crush and Fortnite (if you couldn’t before), and no matter what game your child plays you’ll notice the flow of a gameplay session, including the clear stopping points that you can use to end a session if your child is getting too absorbed.
Watch for clear signs of victory and defeat.
Games with a multiplayer focus strongly encourage players to keep going once a match is over. The “game over” screen will appear, but one of the more effective tools that keep players going is making it easy to jump right into a new match. Knowing what these screens look like will be key in setting boundaries.
Try this: If you see words like “Victory Royale” or “You Placed XXth” flash on the screen, your child's current session is over. They’ve either reached the end and won the match, or they’ve been eliminated from the game until they start a new one. Each of these screens is marked with specific visuals and sound effects—particularly for victories—so watch a few sessions and familiarize yourself with the match-ending moments. If you want a kid to stop playing and get their homework done or take a bath, this would be the moment to step in.
Know the score.
Watching your child play on a TV screen is easier than on a tablet, sure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to use the info on the smaller screen to your advantage. As a recent opinion essay in the New York Times explains, most mobile games center around “lives,” or a finite number of plays a game will give the player per day. Load up whichever game your child is playing yourself, see where the lives counter is, and know how many daily lives they get before they should stop playing.
Try this: Track your kid’s scores and lives count and share in the wins. In doing this, you can keep track of how many times they've started a new session and how many sessions they have left. You’ll also know how many plays your kid needs to go through before the temptation of spending money for more sets in—and you’ll need to keep that in mind, or else you could be “accidentally” charged for extra plays.
Keep an eye on the quest log, or tracker.
Some children don’t play shooters or mobile puzzle games; instead, they prefer vast open worlds bursting with quests, enemies and unique locations. Some of these games, such as World of Warcraft, don’t have clear endings, so if you’re monitoring your child as they play one of these games, the previous tips won’t apply. Instead, parents can use this open quest log to view what the child has to do. Pick one of the quests together, or let the child decide, and then once the objective is achieved they’re done gaming for the night.
Try this: Monitor the quest log, or tracker, which tracks all open quests your child has activated in that moment. Each one lists the specific objective your child’s character is currently trying to complete. When your child boots up a game for a new play session, you can use this to track what quests are open at that moment. Choose two or three to complete, and once they’re done, it's time to save and log off.
For every 60 minutes of gameplay, incorporate 60 minutes of physical activity.
New and ongoing research suggests that the top competitive gamers in esports make physical fitness a priority. Exercise can improve response times in gamers, as well as improve their mood and ability to keep their cool when the games get tense. Is your kid getting enough physical exercise to balance out—or enhance—gameplay?
Try this: Talk together about strategies to keep gameplay in balance with the rest of the daily routine. And if your kid is an aspiring gamer, consider adding 60 minutes of physical activity for every hour they play video games. Research suggests that if children mix screen time and physical activity early in life, they’ll continue the balance as they grow older.
There’s no pretending that supervising your child’s video gaming habits is an easy task, especially if you never played them yourself. However, the tips here will give you some idea of how you can identify features designed to keep players going and use them to put clear limits on how long your child can play per session. No matter which game they're playing, these guidelines could help you and your child enjoy their favorite games with safe and healthy boundaries…as long as their homework is done.
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