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Video Games: They can be a positive…and how to keep them that way!

By Dr. Jennifer Moore, Psy.D. & Dr. Zachary Stern, Psy.D.

The question of whether video games are good for kids and teens is widely debated. Arguments on either side often focus heavily on the content of specific games, the amount of time spent playing them, or the numerous behavioral issues that tend to arise as a result of their use. As such, a common approach to answering this question adopts that premise that video games–at their core–are a neutral entity. And rather, it is the way we think about them, engage with them, and regulate and monitor their use that determines whether they are a net positive or negative in the lives of kids and families.

Researchers across various disciplines have identified several benefits that can exist from playing video games:

Kids are made to feel good

Video games offer an incredible amount of positive reinforcement to its users. They rapidly encourage the acquisition of new skills, and offer salient and increasing rewards for learning and improving. There is perhaps no other context where kids are able to receive such consistent and motivating feedback. As kids practice and learn how to advance further and score higher in games, they are rewarded accordingly and this feels great! While there may be a bit of a learning curve with new games, or for kids just starting out, video gamers often develop a strong sense of mastery which can lead to high levels of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Good exercise for many of our executive functioning skills

While there may be variability between different games, many video games require the use of numerous cognitive skills in order to be successful. Unlike watching TV, which can amount to simply ‘zoning out’ towards the screen, video games typically call for more mental effort. Specifically, video games require its users to problem solve, plan, sustain attention, persist through difficult challenges, and learn from past mistakes. Furthermore, certain games require their users to collect resources and utilize them efficiently, and work to systematically achieve goals. Finally, video games have also been shown to support the development of visual spatial skills.

Social benefits

Many of today’s top video games are played online, and allow for social interaction with friends. While this by no means should replace the value of interacting with friends in person, this element is a positive feature that did not exist years ago. Instead of simply playing against a computer, today’s gamers can work on collaborating and communicating with others to pursue common goals. Additionally, this feature can turn an independent recreational activity into one that fosters important social dynamics such as teamwork and leadership.

A new way to connect with kids

While many parents may have little-to-no interest in playing a video game, this may be an excellent way to bond with your child or teen. So much of the parent-child dynamic is based around the parent teaching something or modeling something to the child. It’s not every day that a child actually has superior skills or knows how to do something better than a parent. But with video games, this is often the case. Parents are encouraged to take an interest in the games their kids are playing, and even ask to participate. Changing around the dynamic a bit and learning how to do something from your child may provide unique, new opportunities for positive interactions and connections.

As with anything, it’s important for limits to be placed on gaming for kids and teens. Here are a few helpful tips to consider when setting these limits and providing the necessary structure:

Use gaming as a means of reinforcing positive behaviors

Video games tend to be salient rewards, and can be used to motivate kids into completing less preferred activities (such as homework, chores, etc.). Remember- gaming is a privilege to be earned, not an automatic right!

Incorporate “game time” into the schedule or routine

Schedules and routines offer a sense of consistency and predictability. Your child or teen should know if and how long they are permitted to play on a weeknight, and during the weekend. Having a visual schedule to display this information can be very helpful for keeping everyone on the same page.

Introduce specific boundaries around start and end time<

One of the greatest challenges with gaming comes when children are told to get off of the gaming system (Any of these sound familiar? “Five more minutes!” “I’m almost done!” “Just one more game!”). Be clear from the start about how much time will be allowed, and provide your child with warnings to help them prepare for transitions (for example, when five minutes are left). There are also many apps that have been created to help parents monitor and limit screen time for kids.

Implement an “electronics holiday” for your family

It can often feel as though everyone is sucked into their games, cellphones, iPads, etc., leaving little time for face-to-face family time. Consider setting up a vacation of sorts from electronics. Choose 1-2 days per month when everyone will shut off electronics, in service of another fun, family activity.

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