How Much Video Game Time is Too Much? (Part 1)

Clues on Kids #001-A

I’ll bet that if you let your kid (and some of you probably do) he would sit in front of his game console, computer screen or handheld device to battle mutant zombies, adventure to far away lands or score acrobatic touchdowns all day long… there would be ZERO complaining! In his ideal world all he needs is a feeding trough and a catheter and he’d never have to leave the couch. Imagine: the ever-present sibling squabbles evaporate into the Internet, there’s quiet in the house, and you can actually get stuff done!

My daughter loves her little games on the tablet. It’s great! While she’s building castles all day, I can get the grocery shopping done, get dinner ready, schedule an appointment with the electrician and finally get that darn tax return ready. It is a win-win situation… right?

Absolutely! It is a win-win situation because those household things do need to get done. It can seem like there’s actually some order in your house when you get to tackle your to-do list. So… yes, in the very (VERY) short term, it is a win-win situation. However, in the long run, the people that are in the winning seat may not be your children… however your china cabinet will sparkle with all the TLC you are giving it.

The long-term consequences of giving your kid more and more time on her handheld device is that there can be a steep price to pay for all that borrowed free time. Excessive gaming and screen time can negatively impact your relationship with your kid and also degrade her own mental health.

small child playing with tablet while mother is shopping

Mental Health?!? How can a child’s game negatively affect my son’s mental health?

Computer games represent a multi-billion dollar industry in a very competitive market. Hence, gaming companies have become masters at making videogames that are amazingly fun so that you continue to buy their product. In fact, videogames often can be more fun than anything else in your child’s life… ANYTHING! That means that your child will rather sit on his rump from the moment he wakes up until he finally passes out from exhaustion and lets the controller fall out of his callused and sweaty hands than do the types of things that a parent would hope his or her child would normally do. With enough screen time, many kids begin to lose interest in doing almost anything else productive or creative. That means that your son would rather incessantly collect meaningless digital gold coins that jingle oh-so-sweetly on his phone than any of these activities:

  • Go swimming
  • Read a book
  • Shoot hoops
  • Put his laundry away
  • Learn to bake delicious homemade brownies
  • Ride his bike
  • Challenge you to a game of chess
  • Brush his teeth
  • Have dinner with Nana on her birthday
  • Walk the dog
  • Take a camping trip
  • Have fun at the beach
  • Go to bed
  • Play with his sister
  • Earn an allowance
  • Complete his homework
  • Go to a friend’s sleepover
  • Draw or write or ANYTHING ELSE creative for that matter
  • Get to soccer practice on time… or at all
  • Bathe
  • See a show at the theater (and I mean a GOOD one at the Pantages!)
  • Learn to play the guitar
  • Enjoy a conversation with you
  • The list goes on and on…

After a relatively short time period of constantly staring at a screen, other life activities become deathly boring. Nothing is as fun or as engaging as a videogame.

family dinner where father and son are on their cell phones

Oh malarkey! I played videogames when I was a kid… Pac Man and Space Invaders on the old Atari XE. I even played Castle Wolfenstein and Ultima on my Dad’s Apple 2E. I turned out just fine. What’s so different now?

It’s true that not all kids are going to get obsessed with videogames. Plenty of kids can play for an hour and then they’re done for the day without looking back. This however appears to be the exception. Children are being introduced to games at younger ages than ever before, and not surprisingly, there are more games to choose from. For the game creators to stay competitive in a multi-billion dollar market, they are designing the games more intelligently, with the overall goal of getting your kid hooked. How else are they going to keep their customers? Playing a video game is one of the easiest, cheapest, and seemingly least benign ways to get an amazing adrenaline rush in the shortest amount of time. Sound like a drug? Well, to some kids, it acts like one, and the creators of these games know how to be the pushers

teenager playing video games while mother is on the phone, cooking, and watching television

Oh my goodness, you make these games sound insidious and good for nothing! How can you compare them to sleazy drug pushers lurking down the alley?

While it might have all started out to be a great way for your little Punkin to learn her alphabet with Phonics Fun or conquering her multiplication tables with The Math Monster, these games alluringly offer the powerful feeling of I did it! I got to the next level! This is one of the many elements that hook a kid to obsess on video games… Getting to that next level! After a child has enough time with mastering Subtraction Made Silly, then she’s already been introduced to how good video games make her feel. She’ll naturally want to feel that again and again with the next game and the next… each one a little more enticing. Winning the game or achieving the goal gives her brain a very exciting hit of dopamine, the chemical in all of our brains that gives us that good feeling. It’s the same chemical that is released when YOU check Facebook every half hour, or sneak from that stash of dark chocolate in your office that picks you up when the 2:30pm doldrums hit.

Video games are specifically designed to make the player feel great, accomplished, smart, adept, and powerful. They do this by providing your child the on-screen fantasy that he has achieved something that FEELS extraordinary. Your kid had to work hard to get to the next level, but not too hard that he feels inadequate. It’s the perfect combination of challenge and victory all wrapped up in a tiny little handheld device. Then to add fuel to the fire, these games are designed for the player to associate himself with a character in the game – usually a character with superhuman strength, who is impossibly beautiful or handsome, and wittier than the love child of Oscar Wilde and Nora Ephron. These are envied traits that can never be obtained in real life… except in your kid’s wildest dreams or… by playing this video game for the low, low price of $44.95! So, how cool is it to get to BE the guy you wished you could be in school, and LIVE in a world where you get to conquer all?

angry and irritable teen yells at mother while playing video gamesTo put it in simpler terms, it’s not the video game itself that is so insidious. It’s the strong attachment and dependence that your kid projects onto the experience that can be dangerous. What can be so addicting about certain drugs is their effectiveness to alter someone’s state of mind that cannot be replicated in any other way. Various drugs artificially stimulate the release of dopamine and other naturally occurring chemicals in the brain in a way that real life can never match. Playing video games can create a similar kind of high, one that is unique to video games.

Let’s take a look at one specific feeling that kids get from playing video games: a wonderful feeling of POWER. This sense of power cannot be matched anywhere else in your kid’s real world.

Power? What do you mean Power? How do videogames make my kid powerful?

That answer is in the February 2017 Blog Entry: How Much Video Game Time Is Too Much? (Part 2) In this second installment we address how video games may sabotage a child’s sense of self-empowerment.

If you want to skip ahead and learn how to allow your kids to play video games with reasonable limits and using them to promote more cooperation, check out the third installment of our April 2017 Blog Entry: How Much Video Game Time Is Too Much? (Part 3)

(updated article from November 2007)

Remember that children are born to make mistakes… That’s how they learn.

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