It's a scenario I hear time and time again. Arguments over video games. "Whenever I tell him to finish playing he goes off! Yelling, swearing, throwing things!" "I've caught her under the bed with my phone playing games" "He's figured out the password to the ipad and I've found him playing in his bedroom". The consensus seems to be the parents are at a loss at how to control their child's access to video games or social media. In this blog today, I want to discuss how video games (such as Fortnite, but before that it was Minecraft) impacts on our children's brains and what we as parents can do.
Video games and the young brain
Video games are fun. I know (and I'm showing my age) - I've been playing video games since the Atari 2600. And if it wasn't fun we wouldn't be playing. But there are a couple of processes in our brain that occur when we playing video games. Specifically the area related to emotions and 'rewards' lights up - feel good hormones such as dopamine are released and we go into "fight or flight" mode meaning we also get a release of stress hormones. Games like Fortnite (but it can be other games, we all know Candy Crush captivated millions of adults) are designed in a way to keep players on the verge of winning. It's very similar to poker machines. If you looked at the statistical odds of winning on a poker machine you wouldn't start in the first place. But the machine is designed to give you intermittent (occasional) wins, which is highly reinforcing, as well as all the flashing lights and music. Fortnite is similar - it's not too easy (which is boring) but it's not overly hard (also boring) and the chances of winning are tangible. And you get cool rewards for winning, which reinforces the desire to play. It's also what "everyone" is playing. You don't want to be the kid that doesn't get to play.
When playing video games our children's brain lights up in areas that are highly reinforcing - it feels good. When you lose, it feels bad because you are chasing the feel good hormones - hence we see intense reactions from our children when they lose (particularly if they were close to winning). We also know that the part of our brain responsible for overriding the emotions part (the frontal lobes) isn't fully developed in children. So as adults, we might want chocolate, but our frontal lobes help us to make a decision eg "you've already had chocolate today, you don't need any more". In children, this executive decision is not there or not fully functioning. Children are less likely to be self-regulating when it comes to playing video games. So if you remove access to something that is very fun and lights up the rewards centre in our brain, you are likely to get an angry response. You are removing your child's access to highly pleasurable hormones.
We also know that because of the release of all these feel good and stress hormones while playing, it can take a while to calm down. Our brains keep going, they are highly activated. That is why it can sometimes be hard to fall asleep if you've just been playing one of these games.
Our role as parents is to set limits for our children
Our parental brain is fully formed. That means we can predict future outcomes from current behaviours. We know it's important to study hard because it will be beneficial later in life. We know it's important that we establish a good routine now to help us out later. This is why we set bed times because we know our children need a lot of sleep, despite our children telling us they're not tired. Our children are not good at future predicting. Which is why as parents we need to help them by acting as their frontal lobe or executive functioning. It's important then that we set appropriate limits for our children and stick to them. Here are some examples that I recommend:
1. No gaming during the school week.
Children have lots of demands - homework, sporting commitments, chores etc. They also need time to play creatively (without screens). They need regularity and consistency. Playing a video game even for 30 minutes requires sufficient time to calm down from the game, and if you are like most parents, there isn't enough time in the evening.
2. Limit gaming on weekends to 45 minutes per day and conditional on achieving tasks. Video games are a privilege not a right. Your child can have access to play a video game, provided all the other tasks are complete eg if you have set chores they have to do, make your child completes them first.
3. No video games/technology in the bedroom.
Bedrooms are for sleeping. This is a good habit to get into. You may want to look at the example you set for your child. It's also a good safety rule to have in place when children are accessing the internet. Yes it means you might have to listen to your child play a game. This is a small price to pay.
4. Your child does not "own" their console/tablet.
I hear this all the time "it's my Playstation". When you decide to buy a console/tablet/computer then have a discussion with your child and set expectations and limits. "You can have access to this x-box on Saturdays and Sundays for 45 minutes after you've done your chores. If you swear while playing the game or have tantrums when you lose, I will take it away". You are the parent, you are in control.
5. You are going to have to educate yourself on technology and the games your children want to play.
Much like movies, video games have ratings. Do you want your 6 year old playing Call of Duty an R18+ game? Or Fortnite for that matter, rated M? If your child keeps finding ways of accessing in the internet or won't get off their device, invest in ways to block access to the internet (see the educational app store for examples).
My final word is that as parents we have the job of setting appropriate limits for our children and sometimes that might mean being the 'bad guy'. Our children (in the future) will thank us for it.