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Our experts' guide to finding a healthy balance with gaming and the red flags to look out for.
ySafe Digital Parenting - Gaming
The controversy around gaming and its detrimental effects has been inflamed over the past five years or so. A large body of research has highlighted the many positive impacts that gaming can have on young people. Gaming has been found to support prosocial relationships and can motivate young people to be more helpful and cooperative with others.
When it comes to gaming, there are three key risks that we must consider as parents: the age-appropriateness of the content, in-game chat functions, and screen time. While there is considerable evidence demonstrating the positive impact gaming can have on kids, we need to ensure that kids’ gaming habits support these benefits while minimizing the risk of contact with strangers, harmful content, and excessive gaming.
Video and app-based games are found in the majority of family households. An introduction to online gaming often coincides with early primary school, where kids access devices such as tablets to play fun puzzle or simulation-style games. The games themselves are generally okay when the ACS (appropriateness, chat, and screen time) guidelines are followed; however, young children risk exposure to violent or sexualized in-game content when this doesn’t happen. Children are also vulnerable to online predators, cyberbullying, and trolling when chat functions are built into games. Excessive use can become a problem at roughly ten years of age and over. Teens experiencing issues such as school stress, peer conflict, and parental disengagement are more susceptible to developing a habit of problematic gaming.
Kids’ exposure to games often coincides with their increased use of a tablet, like an iPad. Generally, around the age of four, kids will begin to request to play games on devices, and from there, their curiosity in gaming only increases. Kids are often sucked into free-to-play games, such as Fortnite, making them readily available to children of all ages. Games themselves aren’t the problem, and playing them isn’t a direct road to danger; it’s the ACS factors that pose the most significant risk. When parents don’t take adequate steps to reduce risk factors such as ensuring the game content is appropriate and safe, that opportunities for chatting with strangers are minimized, and that screen time is managed correctly, it can lead to a greater possibility of harm.
Many parents take the first step to ensure content is age-appropriate but don’t do much after. Consequently, many children are left to their own devices on games that provide opportunities for strangers to interact with them. Without addressing the ACS factors and adopting appropriate safety settings or parental controls, kids and teenagers are vulnerable to issues regarding screen time, cyberbullying, grooming, hacking and excessive gameplay.
Here are our three top insights direct from ySafe's leading cyber safety experts.
When deciding whether a certain game is right for their child, parents should consider these three key factors: Firstly, look at the appropriateness of the content. If it’s not age-appropriate, for example, it contains violence, profanities, or sexualized content; then your child should not be playing. Secondly, determine if there are any in-game chat functions. Any game with chat is a gateway to strangers. Parents should learn how to turn the chat function off or restrict it to chat only amongst known friends. Lastly, consider screen time. Many popular games are known as ‘sandbox games,’ where players can continue to play infinitely with no endpoint. These types of games make children vulnerable to screen time issues. Parents should adopt strict screen time limits with gameplay to help teach kids and teens how to regulate their online gaming time.
Gameplay should supplement social, cognitive, and psychological development opportunities, not be a substitute for them. When a certain need is completely fulfilled via gameplay, we may have a problem. For example, without doubt, gaming adds value to real-life social relationships; however, gaming can become problematic when a young person has all of their social needs met within the game instead of also socializing with friends in the outside world. Excessive gameplay is cause for parents to rethink their strategy to adopt healthy gaming habits.
Some early warning signs that gaming could be becoming problematic include; the child spending a large majority of their time in their bedroom or designated gaming area, displaying little interest in other entertaining activities, emotional outbursts or agitation, taking food or snacks into their bedroom or gaming area, playing late into the night or waking up early to game, appearing to be very tired and sleep-deprived, spending less face-to-face time with friends, or lying about or minimizing the amount of time they've been playing.
If you feel that your child is struggling with the amount of time they’re spending playing games, here are the steps we recommend you take:
Don’t begin the conversation by talking about how bad gaming is. Instead, start with an open mind. Simple questions are always a great place to start. For example, ‘How are you going?’ is a brilliant opening to a broader conversation about general wellbeing.
Think of this conversation as being like a funnel. Start broad at the beginning, and as the conversation slides down the funnel, it can become more specific. Gaming may come up. It may not. But you will curtail the resistance from your child to talk with you if you don’t just dive straight into talking about gaming as the problem.
The keyword here is genuine. The more you can understand a child’s push and pull factors, the better you will be able to support that young person. Showing genuine interest will make them feel as though you’re appreciating and acknowledging their interest in gaming, which contributes considerably to building trust.
Being willing to listen to all of the fantastic things that they enjoy about gaming is important for building rapport but also provides you with some insight into what’s keeping them engaged with the game. Questions like ‘What do you enjoy about playing?’ and ‘What are you good at?’ allow the conversation to be framed in a young-person-centered way.
Parents should consider any other factors that may be influencing their child's gameplay and screen time. One of the most important things to think about when relating to young people is the 'function' of their behavior or what purpose their behavior serves. If you can determine the 'why' (relating to push factors), you can support them on a more meaningful level. The function of the behavior isn't always easy to discern, but the more you display genuine curiosity and ask appropriate questions, the easier it will be to unearth the mystery.
For example, a 12-year-old may be playing online games because they're participating in an online community that's open and friendly towards them. However, at school, they're constantly bullied and ridiculed by other students because they're 'different.' A function of their gaming is that it provides them with a positive social network, where they can fulfill both a sense of social connection and positive self-esteem. In the case of this particular child, their parents may consider helping them develop additional support networks in face-to-face activities and address the peer conflict at school.
Parents should opt to discuss their concerns about excessive gaming by focussing on the impact that it's had on other areas of the child's life, rather than just focussing on the number of hours spent gaming.
Before considering creating goals around balanced gameplay, parents must scaffold their child’s ability to cope. They should help them develop a list of alternative coping strategies that are in line with the challenges they are facing–to help determine these see step 3. Do they need assistance with stress management? Do they require extra support with social relationships? Are they suffering from social anxiety that they need to address first? Have they been diagnosed with a developmental disorder, and therefore should you engage the support of a psychiatrist or case manager?
Once additional coping mechanisms have been identified and are in place, small goals can be set, but parents should avoid imposing goals on their child. It’s essential this is done with them, not to them.
Parents should start small, keep the goals manageable and provide appropriate support and guidance along the way. They should also aim to keep up the dialogue with their child about how they are going and what issues they may be facing. Once the small goals have been achieved, set slightly bigger ones, repeating the same process of support and validation.
Enlisting the help of a health professional is essential if the gaming behaviors seem complex. The first step is always to refer to the family's general practitioner. From there, a referral to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may be a helpful next step.
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