The appeal of today’s ubiquitous video games is based on sound value: the games are fun, the action is fast, the challenges are inviting. Yet when kids and teens spend time in front of small screens – whether it’s the TV, computer or hand-held games – it takes away from the time they could spend playing sport, learning other skills
or enjoying active play.

When children constantly receive their entertainment through computer games, they develop an increasing desire for instant entertainment which decreases their attention span and hurts their listening skills. And while studies link excessive gaming with conditions like depression, anxiety and social phobia, simple common sense dictates that too much time spent playing online games is counter-productive to a child’s healthy growth and development.

The goal of a frustrated parent should not be to remove the child’s access to these activities, but to help the child find balance between time spent using these devices and time spent in independent activity, outdoor experiences in nature, and plenty of physical activity which a growing body craves.

What not to do

It is surprising that many articles which discuss strategies to reduce video-gaming time suggest “tiger-mom” measures such as removing the computer from the child’s room, installing access-limiting software, or simply pulling the plug on the computer. These methods, in my opinion, are confrontational, and send a message that the child lacks self-control. Pulling the plug will only drive your child elsewhere, perhaps to a friend’s house where controls are less strict.

Cooperation and respect should be the tools of first choice. I think the best way to wean kids of video-game dependence is to have the children themselves see the consequences of too much time online and make the decision for themselves to bring more balance into their lives.

Here are some suggestions which my wife and I have tried to help reduce the amount of time our children spent playing video games.

1. Play a video game with your child.

Let your child teach you one of their favorite video games and give it a try. You may find the game instructive, challenging, or deplorable. In any case, you’re showing your child that you are open-minded and willing to try something new. After all, this is what you’re asking of your child in having them reduce time spent on video games. There’s a better chance your child will listen to your suggestions when you’ve shown a willingness to understand the appeal of these games.

2. For one week, keep a log of the time spent playing video games.

Ask your child to keep a record of time spent on gaming. (Or keep a record yourself.) At the end of one week, show them a visual representation of how much of their free time is going to this activity. Is it 10% of their time, or 50%? It’s likely that your child hasn’t considered this, and may be surprised at the results. Once you have some actual data, any argument over the amount of time spent on gaming is eliminated, and you can see if there is a problem, and to what degree.

3. Show them what that amount of time represents in other activities.

With some thought, you can develop a list of activities and opportunities that can be achieved in the same amount of time spent gaming. For example, in 1/4 that time you could learn to play a musical instrument. In 1/2 that time you could improve in a sport, learn how to fish, how to sew, grow a garden…. As a parent, you should be prepared to contribute to the new instrument, help the child get started in an activity program, or help buy supplies or equipment. The goal of this exercise is to show the child what activities he or she may be missing.

4. Arrange active indoor or outdoor activities for your children and their friends.

Help do the thinking and planning for alternative activities for your children. (They may be out of practice.) To make it more appealing, look for ways to include your children’s friends. Check the newspapers, your local community center, or school guidance counselors for local programs and resources for youth sports and activity programs. For example, your community may offer a boating club, sports programs, hikes, mountain bike trails, adventure trips, or other fun outdoor activities.

Offline activities do not always need to be extravagant or expensive. During high school, our son had regular Friday night poker parties with his friends. We enjoyed hearing them laughing and chatting in the back room, and kept them supplied with chips and drinks to help make it fun. Besides the obvious fun of the poker game, these young people were refining their communication and social skills, and planning other activities they could enjoy together.

5. Start a long-term project of your child's choosing.

Your child may have an interest or goal that seems out of reach. If you can tap into something your child is passionate about, you may be able to help them realize their passion. Most children don’t think of long-term projects, but you can show them how planning and budgeting their time and money can bring big rewards.

When my son was 14 years old, he showed an interest in sailing. We gave him a pile of Wooden Boat magazines and asked him to choose a small design which we could build together. He chose a 14-foot daysailer, and we spent Saturdays during the school year doing the project. Over time, his friends began hanging out with us. They also found the project interesting, and enjoyed seeing something develop from a sheet of plans to an actual sailboat. And when the project was done, there was a new activity to enjoy.

Your child might want to build a surfboard, restore an old car (and learn a lot in the process), sew a dress, build a guitar, make a treehouse, create a garden, make a mountain bike course, or take on some other big challenge. Of course, as a parent your participation is required to help finance the project and help see it to completion. But a long term project with your child is rewarding to the parent as well!

6. Acknowledge your child’s efforts in offline pursuits.

One of the appealing aspects of video games is that anyone can play and receive instant gratification. Other skills, such as playing music, require time, effort and self-discipline before they become truly enjoyable. You can help your children find satisfaction in offline pursuits by acknowledging their efforts and progress along the way.

Research performed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that the way parents offer approval affects the way children perform and the way they feel about themselves. Dweck has conducted studies in which adolescent subjects were given a set of difficult problems from an IQ test. Afterward, some of the young people were praised for their ability: ”You must be smart at this.” Others were praised for their efforts: “You must have worked very hard.” The kids who were complimented on their intelligence were much more likely to turn down the opportunity to do a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their deficiencies and call into question their talent. Ninety percent of the kids who were praised for their hard work, however, were eager to take on the demanding new exercise.

7. Have family meals together.

Playing video games is often a solitary activity. Even when my son had friends over, they would often sit beside each other at their own laptops, playing in parallel but not together.

Eating dinner together as a family provides a valuable opportunity for communication. A scheduled meal together helps lift children from the isolated bubble of their game consoles and engage the other members of the family in the exchange of ideas. Family dinners should be a place for open discussion, where the children can discuss their gaming accomplishments, should they choose, and where they can also hear the interests of all family members, which helps put time spent gaming in perspective. Dinnertime is also an opportunity for family members to discuss a variety of interests outside of the video-game arena and plan upcoming activities.

A “Family Dinner Experiment” conducted by Oprah Winfrey in 1993 challenged five families to eat dinner together every night for a month for at least a half an hour. At first the families found it difficult but by the end of the study they wanted to continue eating dinner together. The biggest surprise for the parents was “how much their children treasured the dependable time with their parents at the table.”

Encouraging your child to spend less time playing video games requires more hands-on time from the parents. This is not always easy, given the busy schedules of parents today. But the rewards are rich as we see our children grow, and as we spend more time with them.

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance” by Claudia M. Mueller, Ph.D. & Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 1.

Responses (80)