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Glued to the screen

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Back in the good-ol’days (gosh, I sound like my grandmother), parents just wanted kids home by dark. I don’t remember my mom being worried about my choice of activities, but I do remember there was always a new adventure. If I wasn’t with my next-door neighbor building tree houses with twigs, I was probably catching bullfrogs with my older brother. Usually spring fever was rampant when we’d dash home from the bus stop, grab buckets from the garage, and skip out into the woods — a shortcut to the pond.

Today, many kids are holed up in front of a screen, chasing digital monsters or cracking codes to hidden passageways, all within the comfort of their homes. There are no worries about being caught in a thunderstorm or getting lost in the woods. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

Video gaming is, for the most part, an antisocial exercise, such as solitaire or curling up with a good book. It should be something to do on a rainy day or while waiting for dinner to be served. Instead, many kids get so addicted to video games that they sit in front of the screen every minute of their free time. Does this sound familiar? Is it any different from sitting in front of the TV all night long?

Parents should be acutely aware of their children’s video game habits and preferences, just as parents in the ’70s used to monitor TV time. It’s not healthy for children or teens to always choose gaming over social activities. Therefore, monitoring the amount of time spent in front of the screen, as well as the types of games their kids are hooked on, is essential.

Addiction or pastime?

Some children develop a real addiction for gaming, which goes far beyond the definition of typical pastime enjoyment.

Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015), instructs parents, “Like any addictive behavior, there are signs to look for if you have concerns.” She says that parents should be concerned if their child is exhibiting the following behaviors:

• Preoccupation with gaming — talks about it incessantly.

• Irritability when not playing.

• Secrecy and dishonesty about gaming time (i.e. pretending to be online to do homework, etc.).

• Defensive attitude about gaming habits when confronted.

• Considerable impact on other areas of life (i.e. drop in grades, disinterest in friends, poor hygiene, loss of interest in other activities).

• Mood swings (excited while playing and depressed when not playing).

• Insufficient sleep.

Dr. Catherine Pearlman, a family therapist and founder of The Family Coach, LLC (www.thefamilycoach.com), agrees.

“For children who are truly addicted, the gaming is interfering with life, such as lower grades, not eating or sleeping enough in order to play, losing friends, missing events, etc,” she says.

If this is the case, Pearlman suggests that a detox period of a week or more, so that the child unplugs completely, will open the door to other activities.

Special cases

For children with autism spectrum disorder and other social disabilities, obsessive behavior towards gaming is very common. Since children with social challenges often find themselves alone and with nothing to do, gaming provides a connection with the outside world because online relationships are easier to navigate.

“Parents often overlook excessive gaming because the child is busy and happy. This can be even more true for parents of children with autism or other social disabiliti­es,” Pearlman asserts. “These children and parents have a difficult existence at times, and gaming can help mediate that. However, children on the spectrum may have a more difficult time walking away from the game and may show more anger when not playing.”

Pearlman explains that children with social disabilities are sometimes able to form relationships through gaming that were otherwise too difficult. This might solidify a child’s obsession because he is finally receiving the attention he has craved. She suggests that parents replace video games with social skills groups or other activities that encourage socialization. For instance, parents can provide an opportunity for their child to be engaged with peers in an activity he desires, such as swimming.

Hurley states, “For a true addiction, a child or teen needs to see a specialist.”

She suggests that parents ask their child’s pediatrician for the name of a mental health practitioner who specializes in video game addiction.

“Programs like reSTART (www.netaddictionrecovery.com) offer treatment options by trained specialists and include a digital detox combined with family education, life-skills development, and transition,” she adds.

Give gaming a rest

How much is too much?

A Neilson 360 Gaming Report showed a significant increase (12 percent) in gaming time (not including other entertainment media) for players 13 and up from 2012 to 2013. However, young people are glued to screens for a myriad of reasons. In addition to gaming, kids are involved with social networking on smart phones, computer video games, and movies, or watching TV programming. When the amount of time for all of this entertainment media is added up, the statistics are daunting. Therefore, parents should keep an eye on all of their children’s screen activities, not just gaming.

Pearlman suggests a guideline for usage.

“In general, older children (late middle school and high school) shouldn’t be playing or staring at a screen for more than two hours per day during the week. Younger children should limit use to no more than 30 minutes.”

“Parents need to take an active role in creating rules for game use,” Pearlman advises. She suggests that parents define specific rules for weekdays and weekends and designate clear consequences if the rules are broken.

“Moderation is essential, as is honesty,” Hurley claims. “Don’t judge your child for his gaming habits. Instead, ask what he likes about the games. Find out what drives him to continue playing, then shift the focus to other pastimes that might offer similar feelings and results.”

Pearlman points out, “The more a child steps away from the game and engages in other activities, the less they feel they must play.”

So, if parents can initiate getting their kids away from the screen, their children will be more inclined to stay away.

Parents should also be privy to the latest information about parental controls. Parents can control computer use and gaming console use. They can also limit data usage on smart phones. For parents who are new to the game, a user-friendly guide — “A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, Parental Controls and Online Safety” — can be downloaded to their computer. This guide is published by PTA and Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Concerning video game violence

A recent review done by the American Psychological Association (2015, www.apa.org) confirms a link between video game violence and aggressive behavior.

This report states, “No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. Violent video game use is one such risk factor.”

Hurley reports, “A recent study indicates that it’s not necessarily the specific game that’s to blame, but the time spent playing that can alter behavior. It really comes down to parents knowing their children’s personalities and temperaments. All kids are different. If you see aggressive behavior after two hours of play, try cutting the time spent playing and reevaluate.”

Talking openly with your kids and teens about your observations and working together to make a reasonable plan for the amount of game time is paramount.

Both Pearlman and Hurley recommend that parents check out Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org). There are suggested age ranges, content categories, and reasoning behind the rating.

However, Pearlman reminds parents to go with their gut.

“Parents should use the suggested age range as a guide. They know their children better than game raters. If a game says it’s appropriate for a 10 year old, but a particular child has a very suggestible brain and often has nightmares from movies, then the parent should consider if what is seen in that game would be appropriate.”

“It also helps if parents play the games with kids or before kids play to get an understanding of the content,” Hurley advises.

Positive choices

Gaming companies have caught on to the public’s concern about screen time, and it’s correlation to childhood obesity, as well as concerns about the antisocial aspect of gaming. Therefore, video games that require teams, promote exercise, and have educational content have been created.

Here are a few suggestions based on multiple reviews from different sites. Parents should also ask trusted friends and teachers for suggestions and preview games themselves:

For kids

• Mario Party 9 (Wii)

• Just Dance Kids (Wii)

• Disney Magical World (Nintendo 3DS)

• Professor Layton Series (Nintendo 3DS)

• Magic School Bus (PC)

• Reader Rabbit (Wii)

• Vita Pets (PlayStation)

For teens

• Third World Farmer (free online)

• Broken Age (PC)

• Just Dance 2014 (Wii)

• Portal 2 (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox)

• Professor Layton Series — selected games (Nintendo 3 DS)

• Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PlayStation, Xbox)

• Zumba Fitness World Body (Xbox)

Updated 4:59 pm, July 9, 2018
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