Is Your Teen Spending Too Much Time Playing Video Games this Summer?
How to Rethink Video Game Time for a Healthy and Productive Summer.
If you’re stressed about your teen playing video games all summer, you’re not alone. There’s a lot of pressure to make summer enriching, so watching our kids glued to the screen can be pretty disconcerting. Fortunately, we can improve their summer (and ours as parents/guardians!) with a subtle reframe of the situation and some healthy boundaries.
Rethinking Game Time: It’s Not All Bad
As a kid, I learned a lot from playing video games. And there’s a good chance your kids are similarly learning skills and lessons while engaging with their gaming device of choice. Given my life experiences and background as an educational psychologist, I think differently about video games and what they can offer us beyond distraction and entertainment.
A lot of the press surrounding gaming and digital engagement involves stories of young people spending too much of their time playing on screens. Without a doubt, there can be too much of a good thing, and excessive game-time can be problematic. In 2019 the World Health Organization declared Gaming Disorder an official medical condition. Countries like China are trying to use AI and facial recognition to limit adolescence’s screen time. But the right amount of game-play can be a part of a healthy and engaging summer and adolescence.
Nearly universally, kids love video games. They are designed to be hard to resist. When I ask my students what they like to do outside of school, nearly every one of my students mentions some game they are into: Fortnite, Minecraft, Super Mario, NBA 2K20, League of Legends, and many others. The gaming industry has far eclipsed the film industry and the US sports industry; we watch other people play games online, young people are now designing games of their own, and top gamers are bringing in 7 figure salaries. Video games reign supreme over other forms of entertainment. This context reminds us that we probably won’t get very far by trying to ban our kids from gaming altogether. We have to find a way to teach moderation.
When I came of age, video games were hitting their stride. Pong hit the scene in 1972 and I arrived a few years later. By the early 1980s PacMan was all the rage, arcades were everywhere and Atari had taken the adolescent world by storm. My siblings and I spent hundreds of hours playing our 2-person PacMan handheld, which seems so incredibly simplistic compared to the games adolescents are playing today.
In school, my classmates played text-based Wagon Train on our Apple IIe and at home I began to conquer the Sierra On-Line quests on our home computer: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and more.
Later we purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System, and every two weeks I used my lawn-mowing money to buy a new game: Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario, Punch Out, Rygar, Castlevania, and more. I remember the exhilaration of beating a game, seeing it all the way through to completion.
I was certainly having fun playing these games until the wee hours of the morning (limiting screen time wasn’t such a parental priority in the ‘80s), but, as I’ve discovered in my subsequent professional life, I was also learning.
Visual Spatial Skills
Playing games that involve a great deal of visual complexity and navigating novel landscapes will absolutely build visual spatial skills. Researchers have found that playing visually dynamic games such as Super Mario Bros. leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus and other brain regions, supporting information processing and sensorimotor activation. Visual spatial skills allow an individual to accurately perceive the world around them, to judge distances and understand planes and volumes in space, abilities which can be incredibly handy when designing and creating and comprehending objects in 3-dimensional space. Artists, architects, dentists, engineers and designers alike rely heavily upon these skills.
Fine Motor Skills: Building Manual Dexterity
I remember getting faster and more proficient with the Nintendo controllers as I learned the patterns needed to beat the bosses and advance to higher levels. As the fingers become more dexterous and responsive to the games, fine motor skills are developing. In one study, laproscopic surgeons who played video games were found to work 27% more efficiently and make 37% fewer errors during real life surgical procedures.
Creative Problem Solving
Playing fast paced games requires not only fast reaction time, but also creativity and adaptability. Many video games adjust based on your actions, requiring cognitive flexibility and creative problem solving – both important executive function skills that support academic and life success. One research group in the Netherlands examined the numerous cognitive benefits of gaming including advances in problem-solving skills.
Working Memory Training
Beating games requires remembering complex sequences of moves. I will never forget learning to beat the computer playing the old Dirk the Daring character in Dragon’s Lair. Move left, wait 3 seconds, move right and back, wait 4 seconds, duck, move forward. I was memorizing a choreography; one false move and you are back to the beginning. This kind of memory work is good for holding long and complex sequences in the brain, an important academic and practical skill that students with working memory deficits often find more challenging.
Learning to beat any game involves learning to see patterns and understand algorithms. Gamers must be observant as they study a system and determine how it works, how it is programmed to behave. To understand the embedded logic in every game, and comprehend the rules of a given system, gamers must consistently use trial and error and track the consequences of their mini “experiments” during game-play. Becoming better at seeing patterns and comprehending systems will generalize too many areas of life. The ability to intuit patterns is practical in many fields, from data analysis to computer programming, social sciences and more.
I remember being able to play for hours and hours, inhibiting other distractions, and focusing on the game at hand. Researchers have noted selective attentional benefits from game play, particularly the ability to focus on relevant information while screening out distractions. Heightened visual selective attention can be useful when undertaking visually creative tasks.
Goal Directed Persistence and Frustration Tolerance
This is one of the major benefits of gaming, learning to persist in the face of challenges and failures. In school, students sometimes view mistakes or failures as entirely negative and final. Educational research, however, shows that mistakes and recovering from failure is an essential part of learning, not something to fear and avoid at all costs.
In gaming, “failure” is framed in a much healthier way that supports learning and resilience – it’s part of the process of getting good at the game, not a sign that you’re “bad” at it and can never get better.
When I played video games, I failed again and again and never lost my will to complete the task or gave up. I believe video games made me grittier and more committed to goal attainment. Solving digital puzzles and seeing the fruits of my efforts trained me to persist. This is a vital skill that we can coach students to apply in solving other academically-oriented problems and challenges.
Help Seeking, Collaboration, and Social Connection
Beating a game typically involves chatting with friends and playing with friends, learning tricks or moves to make things easier. Social gamers learn to be resourceful, to get help and share information. Even in the ‘80s, before games were networked and gamers were collaborating and talking to each other using headsets, games had a strong social element.
Games today are much more social than ever before. Many popular games have massive, multiplayer communities where people connect, communicate, engage, compete and have fun together. Through group game-play, young people are learning to cooperate, collaborate, and function as a team. This has benefits beyond gaming, for higher-level school work and the modern workplace.
Enhanced Self-Efficacy and Self-Belief
Humans have an innate desire to feel competent. Students who experience themselves as competent, resilient, resourceful in one area can transfer those same feelings to other areas. A student may struggle in one academic domain, and give up when the going gets tough, but bring a very different self to game play. We can help build the bridge between the feelings of competence the student experiences in the world of gaming to the academic domains where the student is struggling. Let’s bring your League of Legends mindset to your Anatomy class, and you’ll be off to the races.
Decompressing and De-stressing
We all need ways to unwind when stressed, and games are one way that many people use to decompress and relax. The key is using games for a healthy reset versus collapsing into them and numbing out. In moderation video games can provide a fun and engaging break and help create some distance from other stressors and challenges.
Setting Healthy Limits and Boundaries
When it comes to video games, balance is essential. Students can lose themselves in games, and the pursuit of games can squeeze out other activities; that’s when they become problematic. When in balance, games are exciting and a positive part of life.
Instead of looking at video games as a necessary evil, to be limited as much as possible, it might help to look at games like any other activity or interest – one that has its benefits when done in moderation, and it’s downsides when done in excess.
The “right” boundaries will differ by individual student and family. Many parents will establish routines where time playing games is earned once other essential tasks are completed. After their homework is completed, chores are knocked out, and they’ve had some physical activity, the students can play to their heart’s content. Some families may allow for more time on the weekends.
It may help to start with understanding the research and professional guidelines for screen time by age. Additionally, it’s important to limit screen use in the evenings, which can interfere with the healthy sleep that teens need. Within those boundaries, each family needs to work collaboratively to develop limits that work for them.
Adolescents should partner with parents and guardians to set the family rules, so that the experience helps build, rather than undermine, their sense of ownership and responsibility. After all, determining how much and how often we do something is an important self-regulatory skill, and we don’t want our kids to miss out on this opportunity to flex that muscle.
If you’re trying to help your teen learn to manage their time, we can help.
Check out one of our FREE upcoming webinars on 21st century learning skills or contact us at 866-789-7737 about a diagnostic session with one of our Executive Function Coaches.