Unlimited time for video games teaches social skills

Taiwan just made it illegal to give kids too much screen time. The most notable thing about the law is that it fails to differentiate types of screen time. For example, watching a Disney movie is a lot less likely to be educational than, say, watching a video that describes photosynthesis.

And not all media is clearly good or bad. If my kids are watching the demo reel for our reality TV show, does it count as a family movie or reality TV? If my son takes a photo of himself does it count as screen time or art lessons?

All screen time is not created equal. Except, it seems, in Taiwan.

Recent research suggests that unrestricted video games might be some of the most beneficial screen time. And, ironically, a lot of the benefits stem precisely from the video games not being regulated by parents.

The Journal of Play published research demonstrating that a big benefit of recess isn’t so much the exercise time as the time kids have to be with their friends in an unstructured environment. That’s essential to personal development. And, as danah boyd says in her book It’s Complicated, kids are desperate to have time while their parents do not monitor them.

Once you understand the relationship between video games and social skill development, it didn’t surprise me to see another study showing how playing video games at a level of intensity promotes good executive function skills.

Think about it: executive function is the ability to figure out what’s best to do next. It’s hard for everyone, but you don’t really learn how to do it until you have unstructured time where you start and stop activities at your whim. 

I’ve been reading lately about the concept of a media diet. You know how we used to have meat at the small part of the food pyramid and now we know meat is better than grains. So we flipped the food pyramid and it guides us better. So I wonder, could we flip our ideas about what media is best for us? I bet that would help, too.

I’ve already posted on this blog about how kids who play video games are more successful as adults. With this new research those conclusions are more sure to me.






22 replies
  1. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    If you feel good seeing your kid in front of whatever kind of screen, then any and all evidence that screen-time is good or bad is irrelevant, eh? Parents need to trust their guts, instincts, intuition, feelings, life experience, and wisdom–and mix that with what we want for our own children. That’s about the best parenting advice anyone could give me, right there.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think the reason I write so many posts about video games is that it does not feel good. Most parents I know, who, like me, allow unlimited video game time, have a hard time watching it happen. It almost never feels good.

      First I have to remind myself that self-directed learning does not mean learning what I want to learn. It’s what my kids want to learn.

      Then I remind myself that video games are educational, promote social skills, etc.

      But what I really have to remember is that all of parenting does not have to feel good. It’s hard to homeschool. I can know intellectually it’s good for my kids even if emotionally it’s hard.


      • Amy A
        Amy A says:

        I didn’t realize (many, most, some?) pro-video-games parents do not feel good about their kids’ video-game use.

        It’s possible to have self-directed learning and also for parents to still have a say in how this is done.

        One of the reasons my kids aren’t in school is so I can be the one raising them, not their peers (which ultimately happens in such an institution).

        One of the issues I have with modern (especially homeschooling) parenting is the belief that it’s bad for parents to actually have a say in what their children do. Many of us know we don’t want to be authoritarian (or abusive or jerks) and we really want our children to feel free and to follow their instincts and interests; but that doesn’t mean we need to go the extreme opposite and make our children lead their own parenting.

        There’s a lot of security for kids to be able to trust that their parent is taking responsibility for them, and to trust that their parent is using their life experience to guide in parenting. The cherry-on-top is for the parent to enjoy guiding their kids. My parents were authoritarian/strict and they seemed to hate every minute of parenting. I like the image of providing gentle/loving/intuitive/unambiguous guidance, direction, security, surety and enjoying it.

        And so I think it really is important for parenting to feel good. Being ‘easy’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’. Doing things differently than how we were raised, with very few or no role models, is not easy at all. But it’s a whole lot easier when we find ways to be fulfilled by it.

        I really liked the book _Your Competent Child_ by Jesper Juul when I read it years ago.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          Why does the opposite of traditional parenting need to be labeled as “extreme”? Parenting is not one size fits all, and traditional parenting methods were not only useless for our family but they were devastating for my oldest child. I had to relearn parenting at the same time I had to unschool myself. My kids needed more from me than the “what’s been done before works” mentality.

          • Elizabeth
            Elizabeth says:

            Have you ever watched the movie The Sound of Music? Do you remember the song “How do you solve a problem like Maria”?

            I’m raising three Maria’s. Traditional methods of learning and parenting don’t work for us.

            Furthermore, we embrace being nonconformists. The world is increasingly becoming niche focused and hyper specialized. I don’t consider my parenting style extreme. If I had kept going down the path of traditional parenting and traditional school I am certain my oldest child would be pathologized in every single way with every label one could possible come up with. That is what I consider extreme, if I had kept going down that path.

          • Amy A
            Amy A says:

            I myself have to take care to not to do the extreme opposite of how I was raised. I sort of started off that way. And until a few years ago it finally occurred to me that I actually want to have an impact on my kids with my beliefs and values… because I was so caught up in trying to do things differently than how I was raised. I now can appreciate some of how I was raised; namely, how my parents felt so sure about passing along their beliefs and values.

          • Amy A
            Amy A says:

            Oh, and on my extreme-opposite quest, I was attracted to h.s. groups which also seemed extreme opposite.

            My wakeup call happened when I was accused of all but being abusive for wanting my youngish kids to go to bed the same time as I go to bed (vs. after me as they were doing).

            Then I realized that I want to have some say in how things go down in my home. And my kids can still be free and happy and loved even with some guidelines. My attunement with my own kids showed that they were much happier and secure when I set some guidelines and when I took heed to how -I- felt about what they were doing. My kids have since directly confirmed this to be true for them. I think their trust in me was amped up tremendously.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:


          This is true for us too. Our house is filled with organic, non-gmo, healthy foods. We don’t have a specific time to be in bed, that’s the benefits of unschooling for my spouse, but we do have a routine. My kids love oral hygiene, being clean and dressing nicely.

          What I had to change was to stop giving false choices to get *my* desired outcome. Instead of “here is what you can do today” I changed to “what do you want to do today” and “how can I help you”

          I love my kids just like you love your children and I want to guide and mentor them just like you do. It’s just being accomplished differently and I think that we can agree that this is ok.

          Wanted to share this article with anyone who is interested: tocaboca.com/magazine/kids-are-people/

          • Amy A
            Amy A says:

            Elizabeth, I’m thinking I’m not explaining myself very well here. I said nothing about my thinking people don’t love and help their kids. I think some noncomformist parents feel shame for wanting to say No to some things. They don’t say No because they think it’s mean towards their kids, or restrictive of healthy growth. It was a massive relief for me to learn all that I expressed here. That’s what I was attempting to write about.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          I am a nonconformist that does *not* adhere to dogma. So I am a noncomformist in my noncomformity.

          So of course we have to say no to things as a family, things that require money or time or travel are not instantly given. But we don’t just say No and that’s that, because I said so, etc. There are reasons like cost, logistics, commitment and safety.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    As a radical unschooling family (and member of left shark club) it is important for us to discuss video game use from time to time. My kids are younger and are actually pretty good at self-regulating for the most part. Yesterday my oldest was in what my friends and I call a “state of flow” with working on manga. My philosophy is that my children are not my property to control, they are little people with rights and I am a guide to help direct them to make good choices.

    While in this 6-7 hour state of flow she forgot to self-regulate and didn’t take any breaks for a snack or just to get up and walk around. Her manga skills are insane and I’m very proud of her, but I noticed that night that her face looked pale/gray and she had dark circles under her eyes. So we had a discussion about the importance of self-care, having a little snack or something. But at the same time letting her be in that state of flow to let creativity go wild reinforced unschooling for me.

    If the same thing happened with video games, I would have the same discussion and guidance. Take breaks, walk away, have a snack because it is starting to impact your health. If self-regulation was not possible for my kids then I might have to do something different.

    With TV it is helpful to my middle child because she is an actor and watching scripted shows is educational for her, she uses what she learns to improve her own craft.

    I know some kids who are given the same freedom choose not to play video games. Other parents have a designated educational time and then let their kids have unrestricted time the rest of the day. Other parents can’t have electronics because of negative behaviors. My take away- we are not cookie cutter individuals. Obviously what I do is best for our family, but I wouldn’t expect someone to reproduce or copy everything I do.

    My spouse’s video game play is strictly entertainment/downtime. I don’t think he worries about executive function skills. I do see some similarities to his “quests” on WoW, with some of the work he does from home. He has to look at all the videos the techs take of the tubes inside the rockets and look for anomalies that need to be corrected before it goes to the next place for hot fire testing. It did remind me of his video games, moving up and down and looking around for anything that doesn’t belong.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I am going to have to youtube left shark because even though I watched the half time show I missed it!

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Hi Karelys,

        It’s on youtube now. I showed it to my husband last night because he had heard about it but didn’t know what “left shark” meant other than it being in Katy Perry’s halftime show.

        So funny and relatable. :)

  3. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    The issues of screen time, from what I see, is the context of use. Like if a parent is using it to distract a kid for hours on end then yes that is a problem. At what age is unrestricted time appropriate? Babies through two should not watch tv. That’s been researched.

  4. CristenH
    CristenH says:

    When the amount of time a child spends playing video games starts to feel uncomfortable to an unschooling parent, it’s a great time to do a self-check-in. One option is to get involved with the child playing the game, play with them, help them find more tools via YouTube or game wikis, etc. I find it’s easier for me to see the learning if I am involved. Then I relax. If that doesn’t do it, then it’s time to look at my connection with my kids. Am I tired, disconnected, not willing to do more for them right now for whatever reason, feeling like an inadequate homeschooling parent? That’s when I really freak out about “screen-time”. When I am not on my game. The kids might do/want more, but I’m not there, mentally. So it’s time for me to figure out what I need to give them more. Right now that means weaning, sleep and good nutrition. And breathing through the endless requests to build life size roller coasters. The video games are not the problem. And, in the words of a mother of grown unschoolers, the kids are alright. It’s us parents who need to do the work.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head for me. When my kids were obsessed about the internet, etc. I knew it’s because I wasn’t being present (ouch). They love when I’m engaged with them–way more than any screen time.

      And I have had to totally revamp my relationship with the internet, etc. because my kids hated when I was so plugged in…since I wasn’t present with them while being plugged in. I don’t blame them. I appreciate that they wouldn’t put up with that and let me know.

      Our homeschooling is mostly about connection and contact with each other (while still doing our own things). It’s certainly not the easy, or popular, route to go. But it feels deep, and I need deep for life to feel worthwhile. I want deep kids, too.

  5. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    My boys love your post b :-)
    They can use quite a lot their computer, mainly to play the game they prefer: Minecraft, game that I can’t monitor because I don’t understand anything.

    The only two rules are: 1. Use of the computer in the living room, not alone in their bedroom (because of Internet dangers). 2. No computer after 9:00 pm (the computers stay in the living room during the night) to read a book before sleeping.

  6. Kim
    Kim says:

    When my oldest was aged 3-5, I let her have unrestricted TV time. I mean, unrestricted. She has great social skills and really enjoys doing sitdown work and has a better attention span than I do. Recently, when she became “registered” as a homeschool student, we took breaks from playing video games during the day with sit-down work. Then, my computer conked out for a few months and she couldn’t play games during the day or watch videos. I noticed, even though we did sit down work, she became less interested in learning and she wouldn’t have as many bright ideas to come to me with. When I got the computer back, that turned around. While traditional learning segregates material by grade and challenge level, using TV and games allow kids to push their limits and process the things they understand and sit back and wonder about the things they don’t. With TV and video games, I don’t believe my child would be as smart as she is. With these two elements, she’s learning at a much faster pace than I can teach her.

  7. The Trophy Husband
    The Trophy Husband says:

    It is funny how there needs to be research to prove that children do better when they are left to their own devices to problem solve, use deductive reasoning, and repetition towards a specific goal. It just so happen that games offer that combination for kids. I am sure that has always been the case, but it was usually board games such as monopoly, backgammon, Chinese checkers, and chess . I hope my children will love call of duty for the simple fact that your score raises based on how you build a team around certain strengths and be the better tactician then your opponent. That seems like the most relatable scenario to the business world. (Also because I am freaking good at Call of Duty and it will be fun to spend time with my kids doing that!)

  8. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Chris I have seen your score on COD, you’re not that good ;)

    I’d rather have the child paintball because I have an unreasonable dislike for video games but they’re cheaper than paintball. And thanks to the research I get they can be good.

    I still feel like they are just killing brain cells thanks to my parents always yelling at my brothers about it.

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