First, what does the term ‘gaming’ actually encompass?
While your mind might automatically think of Playstations and Xboxes, the experts warn that gaming actually includes a wide range of devices and modalities. As Tom Naylor, deputy chief operating officer at the educational games and video platform Azoomee, explains: “Computer games are a form of play for kids (and adults) and they make up a broad spectrum of games from easy-to-play minigames on a mobile device, to huge multi-player productions on consoles.”
How much screen time should children be allowed?
This is a very personal choice, and, in the UK, there are no official guidelines on screen time. In the US, The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends zero screen time at all for children under the age of 18 months. It then proposes a maximum of one hour a day up to the age of five. After that, there is no official recommendation, but an hour and a half is often what’s suggested. Bear in mind this is meant to include TV time, as well as time spent playing computer games.
When should children be allowed to start using computer games?
“You have to decide what content and media you are happy for your child to consume, and ensure the games your child plays are age-appropriate, educational where possible and most importantly, safe,” argues Tom. “Children as young as two can start playing educational games on an iPad or iPhone, progressing to console-based games and things like Wii from the age of five.”
When it comes to computer games, start as you mean to go on. Each child is different, and only you as a parent can judge when it’s the right time to let them start playing online games. Establishing gaming as a reward will depend on a parent’s particular style and the child in question.
When you decide it’s the right time, start playing games with them. Make it a family activity where you all play a game that gets everyone active and moving. Alternatively, find an age-appropriate game you can all play together. This is important for several reasons. First, you get to select the games they are playing, and you can assess for yourself if you think they are appropriate. You also get to model the behaviour you want your child to copy. When playing together, if you come across in-app purchases or loot boxes, you can then take full advantage of these teachable moments.
How can you get your child off the computer when their time is up?
When it comes to getting your child to stop gaming, it’s important to set up patterns or routine behaviours they know are coming. As Sarah Castro is head of safeguarding at SafetoNet says: “You may want to set up a timer to alert them when the time is up. You may prefer to place the timer in front of the child, so they can see how much time they have left, too. It’s worth remembering no one likes being dragged away from something they are engrossed in. So, let your child know when they have 30 minutes left, 15 minutes left and 5 minutes left. That way, when the time is finally up, they are more likely to be compliant. This is a useful tip whenever you are limiting your child’s time on any activity – whether it be watching TV or something else.”
Is a family contract a good idea to help set boundaries?
“If you haven’t already done so, it’s definitely worth establishing a family contract,” says Sarah. “It can include anything you feel is appropriate, but it’s an opportunity to set ground rules across a range of topics, including how the family use their mobile devices and limit screen time. For example; no mobile phones at the dinner table or in bedrooms at night – and never in the bathroom.”
Teenagers will proactively engage with negotiating and enjoy policing holding their parents to account, too. So, with that said, parents should only propose this if they intend to stick to the agreed rules themselves. It can be fun, and children and parents can learn so much about each other through this process. It’s a great way to teach them self-moderation and other life skills that will hold them in good stead.
How do you know which games are appropriate for your child?
As with movies, all videos carry their own age rating, so pay close attention to these. The European PEGI rating system ensures games, films, tv shows and mobile apps, are all clearly labelled with a minimum age recommendation. These age ratings provide guidance to parents in particular, to help them decide whether or not to buy a particular product for a child. If you go on sites like Amazon, they also break down the games into different age groups from ages three and up, so you can gauge what is and isn’t appropriate.
Games that encourage children to create new things and use their imaginations are particularly good, like Minecraft, Super Mario Maker, Lego Worlds, Lego City Undercover, LittleBigPlanet and Roblox – where you can choose what the character will look like to where the game will be set. As a parent, it’s a nice idea to start off by playing computer games that were your favourites as a child.
Can violent games affect your child’s behaviour?
There’s an ongoing debate about whether a link exists between video games and violent behaviour, but the truth is there’s a lack of conclusive evidence. It’s all about everything in moderation, talking to your child and keeping a close eye out for any changes in their mood or behaviour.
What happens if their friends play games you don’t feel are appropriate?
This can be a bit of a minefield because you don’t want your child’s friend’s parents thinking you are judging them. Every child is different, so just make this clear to them if it comes up, explaining that you’re not sure your child is mature enough to cope with the content.
How do you keep your child safe online?
“Parental controls can be found on your computer, (and the Xbox, PS4 and Nintendo Switch all have them, too) but they won’t necessarily safeguard your child if there is an in-game chat function or in-game audio communication,” warns Sarah. If your child is playing a game on a mobile device that has a chat function requiring a keyboard to communicate with other players, you can download the SafeToNet app and install it on your child’s device. It uses behavioural analytics to contextualise what is happening on the device, detecting risks around bullying, sexting, abuse or aggression. It provides immediate feedback to children as they type, offering advice and guidance to help prevent them from sending harmful messages, while sensitively alerting parents or guardians to any threats.
Whatever you do, don’t allow your children to play games alone in their bedrooms. Set them up in a communal space such as the living room and when they are playing multi-user games, don’t let them use earphones, so you can hear the conversations your child is having with strangers online.
And what about grooming – how can that be avoided?
“Grooming is a huge topic and there are far too many uninformed beliefs about what it is and how it plays out,” says Sarah. “Again, young gamers are particularly vulnerable because it is the only online environment where children are in chatrooms communicating with complete strangers. Never think that if your child is being groomed you will be able to spot the signs – you won’t. Nothing will be evident until it is too late. This is why it is so important to have safeguarding software on your child’s mobile devices.”
If your child is being groomed, they will be made to feel like they have a friend who understands them and cares about them more than their own family. So, holding regular one-on-one weekly sessions with your child will reduce the risk of them feeling unheard or unloved. Again, it also creates the space for children to tell you what is happening in their digital and real lives. Installing safeguarding software will provide an additional layer of protection.
How do you keep the lines of communication open?
“Create some time for you and your child to enjoy some one-on-one time each week,” advises Sarah. “It should be no less than an hour a week and what you do in this time is not as important as the fact you are giving your child a regular slot when they can talk to you uninterrupted. The most important thing is for you to listen and hear what they have to say.”
There may come a time when you need to talk to your child about an emotive topic. Maybe you found something concerning on the family computer, or you noticed they were displaying behaviour that suggests they are experiencing cyberbullying. If you already have regular one-on-one time together, it will make having those conversations much more comfortable, and you will be approaching the topic from the position of love and support, rather than judgement or panic. Also, your child may have something they want to tell you, but don’t know how to broach the subject or find the right words. If they know they are going to have one-on-one time with you, it makes it easier for them.
Finally, how do you know if your child is addicted to gaming?
What is important to understand is that playing games activates the reward and award function in the brain. For example, when playing a game, the player will have to work to overcome the challenges built into the game and when they achieve or overcome whatever challenge the game has presented, they will feel a sense of reward and achievement, but often like they want to then crack on with the next level. “Warning signs of gaming addiction could manifest as your child wanting to spend all their time playing games rather than taking part in normal family activities,” adds Sarah. “They may become withdrawn, irritable and sleep deprived. You can avoid getting into this position if you put limits in place from the outset.” It’s therefore crucial to make sure there are other areas in their off-line life where they can get the same reward and achievement experience, such as playing sports, learning new skills like playing a musical instrument and outdoor activities where they feel challenged, like climbing walls or competitive hobbies.
Want To Know More About Which Games Are Suitable? Use This General Guide…
When it comes to very young children, the best options are musical games, and those that involve interaction or basic learning concepts. Many of these are designed to be played with parents and teach social and real-life skills. Games like Toca Kitchen, Toca Nature, Sago Mini Apartment and Sago Mini Trains are a good place to start.
Find games that teach them about the world around them and are packed with information. This can be anything from a sports game that teaches them about teamwork to an art game where you can ‘paint’ on screen. Games like Roblox, Minecraft (which is used in schools across the country) Lego Worlds and Super Mario Maker are great for this age.
By this age, children are becoming more competitive, and will be keen to join in multi-player games or games where they play against other people. This is when you need to start paying more attention to what they are playing and monitoring who they are talking to. At this age, your child will have clear interests, so it’s worth exploring games that mirror this, like Beyond Blue for budding environmentalists or Unravel for those who love puzzles. The Nintendo Switch games and those designed for the Xbox are also popular.