8 May 2019

How to help children manage online gaming

From Are We There Yet?, 11:00 am on 8 May 2019

Online video games have pulled many children into a world of bright seductive images and sometimes casual violence. Some parents are concerned that poor social skills or addiction may follow. Katy Gosset asks: how worried do we need to be?

A photo of a boy with a Joystick Engrossed In Playing Videogames in a  darkened room at home

Photo: Andrey Popov

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"A darkened room with maybe one teenager or small child, just playing for hours on end ..."

It's a vivid picture Anna* paints of the world inhabited by many young people.

"They'd be having lots of fun but time would slip away so you'd say, 'Yes, you can have an hour and then, three hours later, they would emerge.'"

Rhonda* has also seen her sons spend up to six hours a day fixated on games.

"If I knew then what I know now, they wouldn't be in the house."

Online gaming has become a big part of many children's lives and many parents are naturally concerned about its impact on family life and socialisation.

For clinical psychologist, Catherine Gallagher, gaming is neither good or bad: what matters is how it's used.

"It's about the context around it and it's about how much it's used. So for me it's all about moderation."

But the online world was one that needed an adult guide, she said, and parents shouldn't 'just let it be'.

"So you don't always have to looking over their shoulder but you have to be engaged and help them navigate through this experience because to leave it up to them is asking for trouble.”

Gaming should happen in a family room or, if in a bedroom, with the doors open so parents could see what was being watched.

A photo of a mother and son playing on a mobile phone.

Photo: 123rf

"It's saying 'Well, if you want to play that, I'm going to have to observe you playing it to start with just so I can be aware of what's going on.'"

"They might say 'Oh Mum!" and you say 'Well, if you want to play it, this is the contract.'"

Part of the problem was that, when parents got busy, it was easy to allow the online world to babysit their children.

"If children are happy and entertained, well, one hour can very easily become four, as things slide."

Ms Gallagher said some parents believed their children should be able to self-manage but she argued that many adults also lacked this skill.

"How do [adults] do with a fully formed frontal lobe when it comes to turning off Netflix. We tend to watch just one more episode even if we've got a meeting at seven in the morning."

Children were also impulsive and in the moment and the games they played, highly appealing.

"They need help to manage usage and probably for a lot longer than we think they do."

Sally* discovered this herself in the middle of the night when she got up to her baby and heard a noise.

Venturing into the lounge she discovered her ten-year-old son, Archie*, peering at a device in the dark.

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

"Here's this pre-teen, ten-year-old hiding, to play his game at 4.30 in the morning so that was when things physically had to start coming into our room."

Catherine Gallagher said another part of the equation was a thing called PIG or the Problem of Immediate Gratification

"We all have it, some of us more than others, but if something's in front of us and it's stimulating or we're in the middle of something, then to actually stop having fun is bloody difficult."

Parents could sometimes view that resistance as something more concerning.

"I think the assumptions we make as parents is it's a moral flaw or its going to end up that they're going to get addicted to other things. That's not the case."

However, she said, learning to extract themselves from a game was a good life skill for kids.

Even if parents like Rhonda faced some unpleasant behaviour before the child got to that point.

"He gets really aggressive when he comes off. It's like all that adrenaline and he's really ratty and irritable and sort of snarky and horrid basically."

But Rhonda warned her son that, if that pattern continued, the gaming would have to stop and his behaviour soon improved.

"He wants to play his gaming so he usually pulls his head in."

Others, like Sally, are concerned about the content, particularly when she learnt that her ten-year-old had been playing Grand Theft Auto at a friend's place. 

"I often think about if this was something physical, if I could send my son out with a group of people and a whole pile of guns to shoot prostitutes, would I let him do that?

"I certainly wouldn't but some people feel happy to let their children sit in front of a screen with a whole pile of guns shooting prostitutes."

A photo of a Boy Sitting On the Sofa Playing an Action Game involving guns On Television

Photo: Andrey Popov

Catherine Gallagher believed most children were capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.

However, kids who played to excess or watched content that was well beyond their developmental age might struggle, she said, even if they claimed that 'everyone was playing it'.

"If you're having to buy it from EB Games and pretend that it's for you, while your kid's hiding behind a pillar then that's probably an issue."

Ms Gallagher admitted she had occasionally done this herself but suggested that, in general, parents should be guided by age restrictions on games and their own instincts.

'We have to pull up our big girl pants or our big boy pants and walk a line that says, 'I'm going to be fair and reasonable most of the time but sometimes I'm just going to say 'No' and that's actually OK''.

Even if that brought on a major meltdown.

"Just because my child's sobbing and a mess and saying that his life is ruined, that's a piece of information, it doesn't have to be the truth."

Nor did it mean a child was addicted to online gaming - something many parents feared.

In 2018 addiction to video games was recognised by the World Health Organisation as a mental health disorder.

A photo of a troubled teenage girl in headphones using a digital tablet while her mom is scolding her

Photo: 123rf

The WHO described addiction to digital and video gaming as "a pattern of "persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour" that is so extensive it "takes precedence over other life interests".

However, some medical experts labelled the decision "premature" and based on a "moral panic".

Dr Peter Etchells, a biological psychology lecturer at Bath Spa University, said the move risked "pathologising" a behaviour that was harmless for most people.

Catherine Gallagher would not use the term "lightly", saying addiction was defined as interfering with a child's normal functioning.

"So it's interrupting eating, sleeping, going to school...That [they're] needing more of it to get same sense of things and that when [they're] not doing it, they can start to have withdrawal."

In serious cases, where parents felt these criteria described their child's patterns, they should firmly limit online activity.

However, she urged parents not to panic as they still had plenty of influence over their children's environment.

"Even though your child will swear black and blue that their life will end if you turn off the WIFI, you can do that.

"And you do have control often over what games are accessed."

And, after all, gaming could also bring many positives, Ms Gallagher said.

A photo of two young girls happily playing video games in a console laying on the living-room floor

Photo: racorn/123RF

"It helps mental agility through having to strategise and respond quickly to things. It provides an avenue for socialising and something to talk about with mates."

Gaming could also help children learn to cope with tough feelings when they lost a game or felt frustrated about having to get off, Ms Gallagher said.

"And it can provide some kids who may not necessarily excel elsewhere a space where they can be excellent."

“They can be the best and can go forth and dream about careers and game design."

Tips for managing your child's gaming

- Be part of your children's online world and know the games they play and who they play them with.

Ngā Taonga kōrero

- Make sure games are played in plain sight, either in a family room or in bedrooms but with the door open.

- When a child discovers a new game, ask them to play it in front of you to find out how it works.

- Talk to kids to make sure they understand the difference between what's on the screen and reality.

- Watch for changes in behaviour: aggression when asked to get off a game or listlessness when not playing 

- If gaming is interfering with eating, sleeping and other activities, limit online access firmly by switching it off or getting an app to monitor usage

- Ask your children to write down how much time they're spending online to help them manage their own time.

- Don't overlook the social and problem-solving benefits of gaming and steer them towards games that require strategising skills and mental agility.

*Not their real names