Experts struggle to agree on screen time limits for children, but there are simple strategies to help parents and enthusiastic young gamers
Thu 5 Jun 2014 04.30 EDTLast modified on Tue 12 Dec 2017 06.54 EST
Video games are entertaining, enjoyable and beneficial to children in many ways. They educate, provide space for creativity and offer healthy social interaction. But at the same time, the best examples are highly moreish and children will push boundaries to play for increasing lengths of time.
Excessive behaviour in any area of life rightly signals alarm bells for parents. However, for emerging an technology like games, it can be hard to identify excess over enthusiasm. Is an hour a day okay? Two? It’s even harder to judge if you don’t play games yourself.
One approach is to look at what how other families are doing it. The 2012 ISFE Video Games in Europe Consumer Study shows that a surprisingly wide range of ages play games: 40% of the UK population in fact, of which 24% play at least weekly. This picture is brought into greater focus by last year’s government briefing, How Healthy Behaviour Supports Children’s Wellbeing. It states that in England, video games were played for two hours or more a day by 55% of boys and 20% of girls in 2010.
Teens and games
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, the clinical physiologist Dr Tanya Byron reported that “7% of teens in the UK play more than 30 hours of computer games a week” in her report, Safe Children in a Digital World.
We asked Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, whether prolonged play time should concern parents.
“It is agreed that excessive screen time – over four hours with no break – can be a bad thing. There is a lot of research on this. However, we should also consider time of day, weekends versus school days and the age of the child.”
He also shared this “South West Grid for Learning” graph to be published later this year based on 6000 children from the UK. It offers another useful measure of screen time – excluding TV – per day compared to school year and shows this increasing with age.
The higher end of these figures can seem obsessive but Byron’s report makes it clear that gaming is far from a diagnosable addiction. More usefully some of the language of addiction can help parents identify when things are getting a bit much. Playing every day, devoting long periods of time, sacrificing other activities, neglecting homework and moodiness… the last two may describe many of our children, but Byron suggests that where four or more of these factors exist there may be cause for concern and need for intervention.Advertisement
“Games should be played as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle,” says Dr Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE, the UK games industry trade body. “Players should take regular breaks – a good guide is five minutes rest every 45 – 60 minutes of gameplay. A lot more information about these and many other safe and sensible gaming tips can be find on Ask About Games, our website where families can make sense of games.”
In light of this, appropriate gaming time is more about its impact on the child’s wider life than a hard and fast time limit. As children get older, they will naturally integrate gaming among other activities (outside interests, friendship groups and even homework) so the dividing line will become more blurred.
Games versus television
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 the latter results in an experience more like a physical toy. Phippen highlights this misunderstanding. “I’m not sure games provide any different parameters to other interactive, immersive activities. Would we ask ‘How long should children play Lego for’?”
Video games offer 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, of course, parents may recoil at the costs involved in buying multiple characters.
Where intervention is required, keeping game technology in shared family space rather than bedrooms is by far the most effective and informal solution. This does require compromise on both the part of the child (losing their private pursuit) 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 more enthusiastic about than parents anticipate.
Using Parental Controls to restrict access to particular PEGI-rated games is a good driver for conversation and agreement over 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 reference points, regular breaks, tools like PEGI ratings and Parental Controls, along with moving technology back into family spaces, ensures parents and children maintain a healthy relationship to video games.