O Xbox, Xbox, Wherefore Art Thou, Xbox?

“How much gaming screen time should be allowed?” is an oft-asked question by parents, my kids and my friends. “But I am a good kid, I make good grades, I play two sports, and rarely get in trouble,” is the reply I often hear as the debate unfolds in my house, at the office, and likely your house.

Regardless of a child or teen’s stated qualifications, TV time, gaming time, or general screen time for more than two hours a day, every day, without a decompression period outside and time for ordinary family interaction is detrimental.


Make no mistake this is a minefield that ought to be carefully navigated because your child may be seeking recognition for their effort as well as arguing for a dopamine hit.  


Inevitably you will be hit with, “But why?”  This is a great question and one your teen should ask. Remember your child is looking for acceptance, mastery and independence. Saying ‘no’ to your child is a poor man’s way of saying, “I love you and need you to learn other skills too. This is also unhealthy.”


Here is reasoning to support more eloquent ‘No’s’:


1. Sitting in front of a screen down-regulates the number of dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward processing area. As a result, the ability to feel pleasure is decreased so more and more stimulation is sought.


2. Heavy use of screen time results in an imbalance of activities of daily living, such as sleep, learning how to empathically communicate, and take on new hobbies.


3. Malcolm Gladwell famously surmised that it takes 10,000 hours to be world class in any field.  That would take 13.69 years spending 2-3 hours a day to become world class. Now that could be spent on social media, games, or in that same time, you could learn how to play guitar, improve grades, train to be a better athlete, serve your community, become an artist, learn to cook, and gain emotional resilience. 2-3 hours a day can solve almost any problem.


4. Even the most cleverly designed games are limited in creativity and offer only the illusion of choice.  Would your child rather work towards someone else’s goals bound by their limitations and rules or create their own goals and lay down their own rules? Your child’s brain has unlimited possibilities when playing without restrictions.


5.  Some games are rich in narrative and layered with Shakespeare-worthy metaphors.  In rare instances, games can be seen through the lens of artistic expression, but those that are worthy of being labeled art are few and far between.  Most games are designed with addictive behaviors in mind and are singularly focused on turning a profit.  For example,
loot boxes are a controversial monetization scheme employed by gaming companies which is no more than a thinly veiled gambling system effectively marketed to children.  

At the end of the day, we are not trying to take anything away from our children and we need to be certain that message comes across.  We are giving them our attention, our love, and encouragement to pursue their interests.  One of the most successful strategies to reach someone is to go to them in their interests and needs.   Commit some time in their space doing their interests with them first.  Turn the game or media into a talking point and a teachable moment, but keep it a two-way conversation.


If all else fails you may need to put your foot down, remove the screens, set boundaries, and suffer some lashing out.  Remember that social media and games hit all the same pathways as substance abuse and there will be some withdrawal.  Have sympathy and sit with them in their pain as you remind yourself in silence that you are their parent and not their friend. 


Good luck. Teaching your children is the best game played.

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