Today all parents are faced with the choice of how to regulate screen time for their kids. It's a decision made more difficult because much advice about video games and parenting comes from people who are too scared to question the status quo or people who are too scared to imagine their kids having a childhood different from their own.
But just as homeschooling requires a leap of faith from the parents that their kids are capable of self-directed learning, a family video game policy requires a leap of faith that kids are fundamentally able to choose the games that teach them what they enjoy learning.
That said, I'm always looking for research to help me make better choices about my kids having unlimited video game time. Here are a few things I've discovered recently:
1. It's about interactivity.
People confuse the issue by grouping TV and video games into the category of "screen time." In fact, most arguments against screen time are also arguments against school: Sitting around just watching something is bad for development, makes kids fat, doesn't grow social skills, and so on. But the benefits of video games come from how kids are making decisions the whole time, working toward a goal, solving problems constantly. Video games are the opposite of passive TV watching and mainstream schooling, in all the best ways.
An incredible number of respected media outlets make the same mistake, lumping TV and video games together, which is a useless way to address how kids spend their time. This article from the BBC about screen time effectively lumps Disney math games with Grand Theft Auto. I have read the article three times and each time I find more inconsistencies and syllogisms.
2. It's about high stakes where your character could get killed.
The Wall Street Journal summarizes research that shows that games with high stakes—like your character dies, or you lose everything you've earned over the course of weeks—are the most educational. And, ironically, far more educational than educational games.
High stakes games also teach soft skills better than educational games. Take for example, self-control. Self-control isn't about sitting still when you are dying of boredom. That's just a low-level type of self-control. The next level is learning not to eat a cookie right before dinner. But the highest level of self control is learning to continue trying to solve a problem even when it gets hard. High stakes, very difficult video games teach self-control in a meaningful way.
3. The benefits of playing obsessively for many hours can't be lumped with benefits of highly regulated gaming time.
This is an incredibly interesting idea: Kids have relatively little access to the feeling of being great at something. It takes a lot of parental intervention to help a kid be great at something—driving all over the place, buying supplies, finding teachers, having vision for a learning curve, etc. Video games are set up so a kid can get that expertise on their own.
If parents don't want to have a kid addicted to video games then give the kid something else that's a path to major accomplishment in their life. Then they'll know they can get that feeling from more than just a single activity.
It's intoxicating to watch yourself get better and better at something you really care about. Most of the time we give kids opportunities to get better and better at something the parents really care about. If you don't like video games, be committed to giving your kid the opportunity to spend that much time becoming an expert at something else.
4. Obsessive gaming fundamentally changes how the brain works.
Wired magazine explains why hard-core gamers have better visual skills and are better at filtering out unimportant visual information. The human brain has plasticity that responds to video games. Hard-core gamers are better at multitasking, better at making fast, effective decisions, and women who obsessively play video games develop skills that typically develop better male brains.
But nothing is all good. The video games that help people the most with the intellectual side of their brains include the most violent video games. And the most violent games have an emotionally depressing effect on boys after just one week of play.
My eight-year-old just downloaded World of Warcraft. And I'm going upstairs now to delete it from his computer. Because I can be a proponent of unlimited screen time for my sons but still regulate the level of violence in their games.