Computer Gaming and Children: Practical Advice

(As a Waldorf family, our instant answer to the question of computer gaming and children  is “no”!  Childhood lasts until age 21 and it is our job to protect our children. However, I also get mail from many families that are not Waldorf families, and their children are already playing computer games at young ages and playing a lot, so I asked my husband for some moderate thought on this issue.  You will notice he advocates strong limits on gaming for teenagers and to not start until the high school years or longer if possible.  There are many fun alternative ways to spend time, but for families who choose to have their teenagers participate in gaming, he lists the pitfalls to be aware of.  I appreciate his insight here. – Carrie)

For the last five years my lovely wife Carrie has been publishing her thoughts, ideas and experiences to the world in this blog.    In that five years I have supported her and this blog from both the emotional and technical side.  That’s not only my role as her husband, but as the father of our children.

controllerThroughout that time, Carrie would often ask guests to post and add to the conversation where it makes sense.The topic of computer gaming and its impact on children is a question that Carrie has received frequently, though in recent months the requests and comments about this subject have increased.   Clearly this is a subject that should be addressed and Carrie has very nicely asked me to post on this subject.

Why?  Well, first of all, I am a technologist.  I work for Microsoft as a Technology Strategy Consultant and work closely with some of the largest companies in the world helping them make the most of their business through their technology resources.   Second, I am a “gamer” (along with many other hobbies and physical activities,…Carrie here:  my husband’s time to game is normally two nights a week after the children are in bed for several hours, so I would say he has a good deal of balance when it comes to playing)..  I play a large variety of games including the most popular game, World of Warcraft, where I am also an officer in a very large guild (quick note, a guild is an online community in a game. Ours is over 125 people).   Third and final, I am an ardent supporter of  homeschooling.  I would say that between my passion for gaming and my passion for my wife and children and homeschooling that I am able to give you, the reader, an interesting perspective on this subject.

Look around your neighborhood or your community.  Take a good hard look.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

technologyWhat do you see?  Technology! Everywhere you look.  It’s become so commonplace that we don’t really see it.  Whether it’s your favorite tablet (iPad, Android or Surface) or Smartphone, technology has become ingrained in the fabric of our lives.  In many ways, that’s good.  We have information at our fingertips now that we couldn’t even conceive of when we were younger (do any of our kids remember the World Book Encyclopedia or going to the library to research things?).   Though technology has added value to our lives in many ways it has introduced a number of new parenting challenges as well.

Computer gaming, in moderation and properly supervised, can be a diverting pastime for teenagers and adults alike and brings some proven improvements in hand/eye coordination and improves our ability to multitask. Many games also have a vast social element that –when properly managed- adds value to the game.  There are studies (PubMed has over 170 articles on “internet gaming”;) that provide evidence to my comments.  Parents see these studies and think clearly, gaming must be good for children.  Right?  Right?

There are also many studies about the detrimental effects of gaming on vision, on obesity and other areas of child development (and yes, a teenager is still a child).  Whether or not we can agree on the benefits, there is also another side of computer gaming: the tendency of kids to play to the exclusion of other activities. Judging by mail to The Parenting Passageway, this is especially prevalent in boys from ages eight through thirteen.   Carrie and I both hear the stories from our friends about the larger community of boys (and girls to a lesser extent) who are playing 2-6 hours of games a DAY.  Outside of the very real health implications of such sedentary activity there are a number of very real concerns that have been raised about the social end of gaming (and computer use in general) including bullying, predation and a general inability to limit their time playing by children and their families.

Before I dig into the subject let me acquaint you with many of the common types of computer games that you will encounter.  Though this article will primarily focus on Multiplayer Role Playing Games (such as Minecraft and Warcraft) many of the recommendations will apply to other forms of gaming as well:

FPS First Person Shooter
MMORPG Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game
PVE Player Versus Environment
PVP Player Versus Player
Griefing Repeatedly killing or disrupting a character during game play
Ganking Another term for Player Vs. Player.  Typically “Ganking” is non-consensual “killing” of another person’s “toon” or player
Toon Short for “cartoon” but is representative of a player’s character or Avatar.

This is a somewhat scary list, isn’t it?  The last items in the list especially should bother you.  While these are part of “normal gameplay” to some degree in adult games, actions such as “ganking” and “griefing” can have profound and negative impacts on younger players.   Young people, especially those under 13, can definitely be exposed to these forms of “cyber bullying” and though it isn’t physical, it is every bit as real.  Remember as well that  even children under the ages of fifteen or sixteen don’t  start to develop adult levels of self-control until later.  This type of game play can have a greater negative impact on children than on adults who are –at least notionally- able to handle it more.  Frankly, I find game play like this to be destructive no matter  who is involved.

minecraftWith “offline” games, or non-multiplayer games like Skyrim and many others, the problems above don’t really happen.  In online multi-player games such as World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic or Minecraft, the situation changes.  The dynamic of having thousands of people of all ages from across the world in one virtual place will increase the possibility of problems.

Is there safety?  Is there a way we can allow our children to play and yet prevent them from the negatives?

There are ways that we as parents can help protect our children but it requires us to be very involved.  Here’s a list of recommendations

  1. If your child is under the age of 14, then consider the course of action of “No online games”  (Carrie here:  Families influenced by Waldorf parenting and education in their views may not even choose to address this until their teenager is around fifteen or sixteen).
  2. If your child is over 14, only allow them to play online games that are appropriate. (See below for more help in determining this).   Learn about the game, examine the website and understand what mechanisms the game has to protect children.  Most games have “Chat Filters” that will obscure/eliminate any bad language.  Many have servers that are explicitly for younger kids.   Learn and make an educated decision.
  3. If your child is already playing games, and you are comfortable with that in your family, but  your teenager is not online yet: See #1.

A number of readers have asked specifically about games like Minecraft which have “private servers”.  Minecraft will allow you to create a game world that is restricted to just those you invite.   This is often seen as benign and many parents let their children onto these servers.  Like the suggestions above, it depends:  Do you know the parents of the children who are running the game?  Does your child play with these children in the “real world”?  Make an educated decision.  Don’t assume just because it’s private that it’s safe.

 Safe Gaming Tips.

Since many kids are already playing computer games, how can we ensure their overall physical well-being?  I suggest that you start with the end in mind.

  • Like television, restrict the amount of time your teenager is able to play at a single session and for the entire week.  A number of adult gamers who are parents have suggested 1 hour play time, no more than 4-5 hours a week for teenagers.
  • Review content from major online presences such as Microsof.. E.g. Online Gaming: Help Kids Play it Safe
  • Set consistent and clear rules about “screen time”, whether it be computer games or television.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (and I’m sure similar agencies around the world) have recommendations that you can review here.  The AAP recommends “no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming a day”.
  • As with the television, a child’s room doesn’t need a computer.  If you choose to do this anyway for a teenaged child, as a parent I would highly recommend having an open dialog with your child and keeping no secrets.  Connection is key.
  • Encourage your children to expand their creative minds.  In computer games, you become immersed in someone else’s vision.  Kids of all ages need to have a wide range of activities from reading to hobbies to athletics.
  • Get them out of the house and go play with friends!   I cannot stress the need for vigorous activity in our children!  It not only sets the stage for healthy lifestyles later on, but exercise promotes a general sense of well-being and belong in our children NOW.

(Carrie here:  I want to thank my husband for writing here today.  :).  I know it is not what Waldorf families want to hear, and this is a more moderate perspective not really geared toward Waldorf families but toward the families that email me and are already knee-deep into gaming.  I want to make it clear that our own children are not on computers at the ages of 12, almost 9 and of course not for a tiny four year old. :))

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14 thoughts on “Computer Gaming and Children: Practical Advice

  1. I enjoyed your moderate and practical perspective on this issue. We can get too wrapped up in idealism sometimes and overlook the facts. There’s a time and place for most things, even gaming.

    In that light, we are not a gaming family, and that is ok, too. We have no computer games or tvs in our house; we’re just not into that. It does make it easier for us simply not having a lot of electronics–there are not fights or power struggles over something that does not exist. But Netflix, on the other hand–now, that’s another story :)

    Thanks again,
    Lisa

    • Lisa,
      Thanks! That is why I had my husband write it because I am out of the technological loop. :) He games a few nights a week after the children are in bed, but I am glad he is up on technology because I get emails about these things and am not the best one to answer them, for sure, because my answer has no moderation in it. LOL>
      Blessings,
      Carrie

  2. Thank you for your well-written piece. Among the bits that jumped out at me is the assertion that gaming improves hand-eye coordination. I find that a weak argument for allowing children to play games on the computer. Knitting, drop-spindling, and chopping firewood all offer the same (and other) benefits, and they do not enter the child into a world of abstraction. There is plenty of time for gaming when you’re an adult. If our family culture is truly whole and full of other pastimes, how can gaming become significant (and therefore a problem)? You allow that parents must have considerable involvement in the child’s gaming life, and it’s clear this takes time and energy and even vigilance. I just can’t see that any benefit of gaming is equal to so much time and energy. I’d take the risks of, say, mountain climbing, over the risks to their souls posed by elements online that I can hardly hope to totally filter or buffer. To me, it’s not worth even once instance of cyber-bullying or virtual violence.

    Again, I thank you for your perspective, and I love to see anyone’s nerd flag fly.

    • Lucy,
      I fully agree with you and I agree with you that gaming is an adult thing. That is why Rob got to write this article from a more moderate perspective, because I didn’t feel I had anything to offer the families that were writing in whose children are already knee deep into gaming.
      I do think my husband was trying to point out that parents hear computers are good for hand-eye coordination and use that as a “benefit” of gaming but are unaware of all the cons in the gaming world for children.
      Thanks for writing in, blessings,
      Carrie

  3. Thank you ever so much, Rob! So concise, thoughtful, and well written. While we do not game or even have a tv, we have so many homeschooling friends who allow their children (9yo range) to play Minecraft and the like. Minecraft is hailed far and wide as beneficial socially, educationally, and physically (mind/body). I stick to my mama-intuition on keeping it at bay but, admittedly, there are times that I waver and wonder if I’m making too big of a fuss. To have someone who is techno-savvy and also a gamer confirm that it isn’t all that it is cracked up to be is a tremendous support! Much appreciated!

    I am lobbying for you (Rob) to write regular guest posts! What can you tell us of “Magic” the card game? Not technology but also one of those social games so many children are playing (beyond friends). There are so many things that as slow/Waldorf/CM homeschoolers, are so outside our range of knowledge.

    • Elle,
      Exactly! That is who I have been hearing from – parents of little 9 to 11 year old boys. I am so glad my husband knew about all of this, because it outside my knowledge as well…I had no idea about different servers, and all the terms and things that happen..
      Blessings,
      Carrie

    • Hi there Elle! While I’m not Rob, I’m a Waldorf Homeschooling father, and I have played Magic: The Gathering as a teenager. I think that Rob’s advice is pretty much rule of thumb for every type of enterteinment there is. Specifically for Magic, I would wait until my kids are older (14 or later) since there are clear depictions of violence, and rather darker themes for some cards and the overall history of the world built into this game. Personally, I feel like M:TG is a fantastic game, very well thought-of, the illustrations tend to be beautifilly made and the strategy behind it is great.

      I also like the fact that these are also “real” cards (as, you know, paper vs electronic) that you can also collect, and that there are tournaments both tiny and huge (organized by Wizards of the Coast, the game’s publisher) that you can enter.

      Have a great weekend!

    • I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. While I don’t play M:TG, I’m aware of the game and would agree that it is better suited for older children. It does make me think back to my youth when parents were concerned about their kids playing D&D and other RPG (role playing games). I played a LOT of those games and though the popular perception was that those that played D&D were introverted, insular people who were unable to connect to reality and their peers. The reality is that many people who played (and some continue to play) RPGs were very creative individuals. I see RPG’s now as a “living fairy tale” where you must use your mind to construct the world and everything isn’t spoon-fed to you.

      I see a number of parallels with how people viewed RPG’s then and how people view some types of gaming today. My opinion is that the RPG and Card games give vent to a lot of creativity without a lot of the negative effects of gaming and electronic media. They encourage you to problem solve and consider things like cause and effect and strategy.

  4. Great article. I have found my biggest challenge in all of this is what to do now that my oldest, who is 15, has been allowed some (very little, but some) game time, now my younger ones see that and want it for themselves. It is easy for me to say that he is older and has more privlages now like riding his bike to the store alone (we live along the main route into town, no sidewalks busy road 1 miles outside of town) So the younger kids see that as a privilage that comes with age because of safety reasons, but they do not understand why he can play games and they can’t. Makes me wish that I never opened that door for him UGH!

  5. I wanted to say thank you for this post. My kids are young enough to not yet be introduced to gaming, although they see it around them. My husband and I are not gamers, but I can see this as a draw for many kids and I can see it will likely interest my young son as he gets older, so I want to become informed so I can help guide good choices. Thanks!

  6. Great article. I thought you may be interested to read one written along the same lines by the headmaster of the wonderful, unique school my children attend here in the UK. The children have absolutely no exposure to technology of any kind until their teenage years http://theacornschool.com/archives/503
    Well done on your thought-provoking articles.

  7. Carrie and Rob, thank you so much for this highly informative piece. Gaming is something I know very little about and whilst I can exert control over what my 10yo boy is exposed to in our own home it is not really possible when he is at the homes of his friends. I often feel quite torn: my gut wants me to say No! at this age, but I don’t want to put my ds into a position where he feels he has to lie to us about what he is doing. And never going to friend’s houses or dictating what they can or cannot do in their own homes is neither realistic nor desired. This article helps me to feel strong in my own choices about not having these things in OUR home – at least not for a good few years yet – and helps me to understand what he might be exposed to in someone else’s home.
    This is the world we live in. We need to understand it in order to make informed choices. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Cathy

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