Timothy loves playing sports-theme video games. He researches players on the family laptop while his soccer game is pulled up on his PlayStation, strategizing and talking with friends who are also playing through the online platform.
Video games often get a bad rap from parents, who think of gaming as a brain-wasting time suck, including Timothy’s mother. She wishes her young teen would read more as well as meet up with friends in person. Sandra Schamroth Abrams, associate professor of adolescent education at St. John’s University in New York, contends that Timothy is reading—just not from a book. What’s more, he’s socializing at the same time.
As part of her work studying adolescents and video gaming, Abrams has found that in moderation, gaming offers cognitive, social, and emotional benefits and provides a meaningful context for learning academics. For example, youngsters can learn new vocabulary, history, architecture, and math and literary concepts. Other recent research supports Abrams’ findings, pointing to benefits kids can get from modern games’ increased complexity and interactive settings. Here’s the scoop on gaming you may not know.
Today’s video games offer detailed online platforms that promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving through problem-based inquiry. Some games require map-reading, reading, and spatial skills that kids exercise throughout the game without realizing it. Video games also offer valuable lessons in trying again until you succeed.
“A major component of video games is iterative learning,” Abrams says. “That means being able to return to the task and make modifications based on the experience of failing. These do-overs are essential for learning, and they run contrary to many traditional classroom approaches where you take a test and move on.”
Even first-person shooter games, the bane of many parents, have been shown to offer learning benefits. Abrams says the games are “extremely difficult and complex,” requiring intense concentration, collaboration, and strategy, as well as quick thinking and decision-making.
Many parents view gaming as a solitary experience in a darkened basement. But Abrams’ work and other studies show that multiplayer gaming is actually highly social because kids carry on casual conversations and develop new friendships, not unlike what might have happened when playing old-school board games.
Friendly competition increases “prosocial” behavior, the skill of taking others’ feelings into account. “This type of competition helps kids think beyond themselves to help others achieve a common goal,” Abrams says. Games also create common ground for bonding in a fun environment, where experienced players will teach the game to less experienced opponents, offering essential skills to young teachers of various ages.
Through gaming, kids can experiment with all kinds of identities, from a turtle to an alien to a superhero, similar to developing a character through a written story. Studies show that games also offer kids the chance to negotiate rules and learn boundaries of acceptable behavior in a safe space, even trying on a negative behavior they wouldn’t dare try in real life. Games offer a range of opportunities for kids to explore and experiment creatively on their own, independent of adult input, translating into skills that kids can take into the classroom. Games are also just plain fun—Abrams believes play is important for everyone—and offer validation through perseverance and success.
It’s easy to brand some games as fluff and others as educational, but Abrams says popular commercial games can be valuable if a child feels a connection to it. She recommends that parents play the game with their child to engage in an informed conversation about the experience and content the game offers, like they would with a book or a movie. Not only is playing the game humbling (if you don’t normally play); it’s also exciting and allows for more meaningful discussion. Games are here to stay, and experts agree that to eliminate them from your child’s life is likely to be socially limiting, so understanding what and why your child is playing is important.
Just because games offer benefits doesn’t mean you should turn kids loose—or head out to buy Call of Duty if you don’t like the game’s premise. Balance in life is key. Lara Honos-Webb, a psychologist and author of The Gift of ADHD, sees many children in her practice whose day consists of too much gaming. The result, she says, is that these kids find the real world boring. They have difficulty developing the determined effort for tasks like reading and writing because the learning curve is longer and less stimulating than a video game. Parents also need to consider what children are not doing while gaming—spending time in nature, being physical, and developing other hobbies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of screen time, even for older kids. But because screens are so ubiquitous now, cleanly separating online and offline life isn’t easy for families. For gaming, Abrams suggests involving kids in dialogues about limits, including determining realistic time frames for certain games and how much time is too much for a particular child. Set a limit that is flexible for some situations to give your child ownership of the decision. He’ll be more likely to understand and honor the limit.
Too Much Screen Time: Signs To Watch For
Experts agree that too much gaming takes time away from other important activities. Kids need limits. Lara Honos-Webb, a psychologist and author of The Gift of ADHD, recommends watching for these signs and suggests some sort of locker for storing controllers, especially if kids are old enough to stay home alone.
- Plummeting grades. Kids often don’t know how to manage their time, and unlimited gaming can cause their grades to tank.
- Unrealistic need for stimulation. Kids may be able to comprehend tasks, but refuse to do them because they're boring.
- Lack of persistence. The real world lacks the pizzazz of a video game. Kids who game too much have trouble developing perseverance for nonscreen tasks.
- Behavior. Oppositional or aggressive behavior about wanting to play games may mean it’s time for more limits. Parents often know intuitively that gaming is the culprit, Honos-Webb says. Listen to your hunch.
- Sleep deprivation. If kids are allowed to have gaming consoles in their bedrooms, they may not be powering down in a timely way for adequate sleep.
- Anxiety. Children who are allowed to play games that are too mature or violent for them can develop anxiety. Keep an eye on game ratings.