Should parents control the time that teenagers spend on video games?

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Video games are entertaining and educational to children in many ways. They also provide space for creativity and social interaction. But at the same time, the children will push boundaries to play for increasing lengths of time.

Excessive behavior in any area of life must ring alarm bells for parents. However, for emerging technology like games, it can be hard to differentiate excess from enthusiasm. It is even harder to judge if you don’t play games yourself.

Clinical physiologist Dr. Tanya Byron reports in Safe Children in a Digital World that seven percent of teens in the UK play more than 30 hours of computer games every week.

Dr. Byron’s report makes it clear that gaming is not an easily diagnosable addiction. However, some of the languages of addiction can help parents identify when things are getting out of hand. Playing every day, putting in long periods of time, sacrificing other activities, neglecting homework and mood swings are all symptoms that call for concern and intervention.

Appropriate gaming time is more about its broader impact on a child’s life than an actual time limit. As children get older, they will naturally integrate gaming among other activities such as outdoor activities, friendship groups, and even homework, which blurs the dividing line.

Distinguishing gaming habits from other screen time is important as well. While TV and video games appear similar on the surface, the interactive nature of video games offers distinct advantages over television, particularly the recent trend in cross-over titles like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. These come with compatible action figures which allow children to play away from the screen, although, parents may find it difficult to meet the costs of buying multiple characters.

Where intervention is required, keeping game technology in shared family space rather than personal bedrooms is by far the most effective and informal solution. This does require compromise on both the part of the child (losing their privacy) and the parent (having to share the main TV) but has the advantage of not only keeping games in eyeshot but encouraging families to play together, something that children are often quite enthusiastic about.

Using Parental Controls to restrict access to particular games is a good topic for discussing appropriate gaming habits in a family. There are also specific hardware features like the Xbox 360’s family timer that pauses the action after a pre-determined amount of daily screen time – although strangely this hasn’t made it over to the Xbox One yet.

A combination of these tactics, regular breaks and tools like Parental Controls, along with moving technology back into family spaces, ensures parents and children maintain a healthy relationship to video games.