Our experts' guide to finding a healthy balance with gaming and 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. There is a large body of research that has highlighted the many positive impacts that gaming can have for 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: Age-Appropriateness of the Content, In-Game Chat, and Screen Time (or A.C.S). While there is considerable evidence that demonstrates the positive impact that gaming can have on kids, we need to ensure that kids gaming habits supports these benefits, whilst minimising the risk of contact with strangers, harmful content, and excessive gaming.
Video and app-based games reach the majority of family households. Gaming often coincides with early primary school, where kids access devices such as tablets to play fun puzzle or simulation style games. Games themselves are generally ok when following the A.C.S guidelines (Appropriateness, Chat, Screen Time).
However, when those guidelines aren't followed, young children can be exposed to violent or sexualised content in-game. 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 10 and above, with teenagers who are experiencing issues such as school stress, peer conflict and parental disengagement more susceptible to developing issues around problematic gaming.
Kids' exposure to games often coincides with their increased use of a tablet, like an iPad. Generally, around the age of 4, kids will begin to request playing games on devices, and from there the curiosity in gaming only increases. Kids are often sucked into free-to-play games, such as Fortnite, making games readily available to children of all ages. Remembering that games themselves aren't the problem (but the A.C.S factors that pose the opportunity for harm), kids playing games isn't a direct road to danger. However, when parents don't take adequate steps to ensure that the content is appropriate and safe, that opportunities for chatting with strangers is addressed, and that screen time is managed, this can lead to a perfect opportunity for harm.
Many parents take the first step in ensuring that content is age-appropriate but don't do much after this. As a consequence, many children are left to their own devices on games that provide opportunities for strangers to talk to them. Without addressing the A.C.S 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 considering if a certain game is right for your child, parents need to consider these three key factors before letting kids play. Firstly, parents must consider the Appropriateness of the Content. If the actual content is not age-appropriate (eg. violent, profanities, sexualised content, etc) then the child not be playing. Secondly, parents must know if there are in-game chat functions. Any game with chat is a gateway to strangers. Parents need to learn how to turn the chat off, or restrict it so that chat is just amongst friends. Lastly, screen time needs to be considered. Many popular games are what we call 'Sandbox Games', where players can continue to play infinitely (e.g. there's no endpoint). These types of games create vulnerability to screen time issues. Parents need to adopt strict screen time limits with gameplay to help teach kids and teens how to regulate the time they spent online gaming.
Gameplay should supplement opportunities for social, cognitive and psychological development, not substitute them. When a certain need is completely fulfilled via gameplay, we may have a problem. For example, gaming, without doubt, can add 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 and stops seeing friends in the outside world entirely. When a child plays games excessively, that is when we need to rethink our strategy for adopting healthy gaming habits.
Some early warning signs that gaming could be becoming problematic include spending a large majority of time in their bedroom/designated gaming area, displaying little interest in other entertaining activities, emotional outbursts or agitation, taking food or snacks into their bedroom/gaming area, playing late into the night or waking up early to play games, appearing very tired and sleep-deprived, spending less face-to-face time with friends or lying about or minimising the amount of time they have been playing.
If you feel that your child is struggling with the amount of time they are spending playing games, here are the steps that we would recommend you take:
Don’t begin the conversation by talking about how bad gaming. Start with an open mind. The simple questions are always a great way to start. ‘How are you going?’ is a brilliant opening line to a broader conversation about general wellbeing.
Think of this conversation as being like a funnel. Start broad at the start, and as the conversation slides down the funnel, it will become more specific. Gaming may come up. It may not. But the resistant from the child to talk with you will be curtailed if you don’t jump straight into talking about gaming as the problem.
The keyword here is genuine. The more you can understand their push and pull factors, the better you will be able to support that young person. By showing genuine interest, a young person will feel as though you are 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 us 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.
We need to take into consideration any other factors that may be influencing their gameplay and screen time. One of the most important questions I will always hold in my own mind when working with young people is ‘What is the function of the behaviour?’. What that means is, I am considering what purpose the behaviour serves. If we know the why (relating to the push factors), we can support young people on a more meaningful level. The function of the behaviour isn’t always easy to discern, but the more you display genuine curiosity and ask questions, the more you’ll be able to unearth that mystery.
For example, a 12-year-old child may be playing online games because they are participating in an online community that is very open and friendly towards them. At school, however, they are constantly bullied and ridiculed by other students because they are ‘different’. Therefore, a function of his gaming may be that it provides him with a positive social network, where he fulfils both a sense of social connectedness and positive self-esteem. In order to help this child with his gaming, we may wish to consider helping him develop additional support networks in face-to-face activities, and address the peer conflict at school.
Parents can opt for discussing their concerns about excessive gaming by focussing on the impact that it has had on other areas of the young person’s life, rather than just focussing on the amount of hours spent gaming.
Before we could even consider creating goals around balanced gameplay, we have to scaffold the young person’s ability to cope. We need to help the young person develop a list of alternative coping strategies that are in line with the challenges that they are facing (see Step 3!). Do they need help with stress management? Do they require extra support with social relationships? Are they suffering from social anxiety and need help around this first? Have they been diagnosed with a developmental disorder (and therefore should we engage with support by a psychiatrist or case manager?).
Once additional coping mechanisms have been identified and are in place, small goals can be set. Once again, avoid imposing goals on the young person. It is essential that this is done with the young person, not to them.
Start small. Make the goals manageable. Provide support and guidance along the way. Keep up the dialogue of how they are going and what issues they may be facing. When 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 behaviours seem complex. The first step is always to refer to the young person’s General Practioner. From there, a referral to a Clinical Psychologist or Psychiatrist may be a helpful next step.
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