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 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. Fun fact: They’d keep my consoles plugged into an outlet controlled by a light switch on the wall, 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 science to explain what was keeping me glued to my games. These days, it takes more than a light switch to overcome that attraction. But if game designers 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 clear boundaries for your young gamers.
Here’s your light switch.
Set gameplay 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 of what their baseline is as you set limits.
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, the Smart Family app can also help you set data and Wi-Fi limits.
Get in the game, or at least watch some.
The primary strategy here is simply to 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.
Learn to spot when the game session is over.
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 keeps 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.
Look for the lives counter.
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. 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 celebrate the wins with them. In doing this, you can keep track of how many times they’ve started a new session and how many sessions they have left. Many free mobile games have an option where you can pay to receive additional lives. You may want to know how many plays your kid needs to go through before the temptation of spending money for more sets in—or 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 the open quest log to view what the child has to do.
Try this: Monitor the quest log, or tracker, which tracks all open quests your child has activated in that moment. Each one lists the 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.
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’re more likely to 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 help you 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.
Outsmart the game: Set screen time limits and pause Wi-Fi and data from one app on your phone with.