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How to set boundaries on video games and screens in general

How to set boundaries on video games and screens in general

There’s a lot of talk in the media about ‘gaming addiction’, spurred on by games like Fortnite. Kids are stealing credit cardsscreaming like toddlerswetting themselves and failing school. Schools are issuing warnings, people are worried about paedophiles, petitions have been issued to ban the game outright, parents are using it as a tool to demand good behaviour and the WHO has announced a new ‘gaming disorder’ mental health classification. We’re all going crazy wondering how we can set boundaries on video games before our kids get crazy (or maybe yours has already gone crazy and that’s making you outright panic).

Hold the pandemonium

In the midst of this hysteria and pandemonium, there are a few quiet voices telling us not to worry. Screen time, including gaming, hasn’t been proven to affect a child long-term. Dr Pete Etchells, reader in psychology and science communication, Bath Spa University, told the Guardian that,

“The best evidence we currently have suggests that some screen time, some video game playing per day, is better than none at all, particularly for childhood wellbeing.”

Other studies have found that a moderate amount of screen time can boost a teenager’s wellbeing. The general consensus among scholars appears to be that the WHO’s inclusion of gaming addiction appears to be premature, and that generally the narratives about kids getting out of control on games has increased with the number of kids actually playing the games. Fortnite is the most popular game in the world, so it’s currently copping heat. Before that it was Minecraft, Roblox, Sugar Rush, Pokemon Go… Next up will be Fallout 76, a social version of Fallout 4, released in September… watch this space.

More screen issues: 5 common screen time issues and how to solve them

What’s really going on

There are a few things at going on here.

1. Experts can’t agree whether screen time is good or bad for kids.

2. But they definitely all advise that ‘moderation’ is important.

3. No one seems to know what ‘moderation’ is or how a parent keeps it in check, even if they knew what it is, which they don’t.

4. Most parents agree that their kid’s time on games like Fortnite isn’t ‘moderate’, but it’s really hard to monitor and control.

5. Adding the “social element” to games makes our kids more likely to want to play them because they feel left out in the real world when they don’t.

6. If a kid is wetting themselves, stealing, skipping sleep or going ballistic because they can’t play a video game, you’ve definitely got a problem. But it’s probably not just ‘gaming disorder’.

How to set boundaries on video games

Gaming is definitely ‘addictive’

I don’t care how much they argue about whether games are or are not addictive in a clinical sense. In a real-world sense, in my opinion, they absolutely are.

Let’s face it, everything in life that’s fun and thrilling can be addictive if we let it. Back in 2001 my husband and I became addicted to The Sims (original version, not the fancy-pants Sims 4). We’d race home from work just to play the game, talked to each other in Sim-speak (“Soo soon”) and often skipped dinner just so we could keep our characters thriving. That’s a really big deal too, because I’d long been addicted to dinner as well.

One day we realised that our Sims characters were living far more interesting lives than we were, so we tried to set limits on how often we could play. Eventually we realised we had to ban ourselves from the game completely and I had actual withdrawal symptoms. Things like feeling restless, couldn’t sleep, felt agitated and angry for no reason and felt like I was grieving real-life friends.

I was 30 years old at the time.

Good news is, I learned my lesson. I haven’t played a video game since (except to check out what my kids are playing). See, I knew I had a problem with games in general because this wasn’t my first rodeo. In 1999 I got so caught up in a stupid game called Dopewars that I used to play it at work instead of doing my actual work. I had to delete that out of my life completely as well, and even now I will still catch myself running drug deals in my sleep.

So this I know for a fact: it can be really hard to set boundaries on video games.

How to set boundaries on video games anyway

So, gaming might be ‘addictive’ to kids (and adults, I was 31 when Sims temporarily became my life), but that’s not really the problem here. The problem is, we parents need to step up and enforce some rules around when games are on and when they’re off.

It might be hard to set and enforce rules around when your kid can and can’t play video games, but do it anyway.

Despite what they think, our tweens and teens are not running the show. Even if ALL their friends are playing WHENEVER THEY WANT. Or that they HATE US because we DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT KIDS DO THESE DAYS. And that they are the ONLY KID who DOESN’T GET TO PLAY.

Despite all that, set the boundaries on video games anyway. And, really, on all your kid’s screen time.

The real battle isn’t on the screen, it’s about the screen. And you’ve really got to want to win it. Ask yourself this (and be honest): is your kid gaming far too much because life is a lot more pleasant for you when he’s locked away staring at a screen? At my place, the answer is a resounding YES. Life is so much easier for me when the kids are on screens a lot. But a pleasant life isn’t what we signed up for as parents.

If you want to help your kid get a life, you have to accept that it’s going to be a hard road at first. He’s going to be mean, angry, frustrated and cruel about the new rules, especially if he’s had free rein for a while. That’s a fact. But do it anyway. (I’ve got lots of advice on staying strong in my Screen Freedom ebook, including dealing with the ‘everybody else is doing it’ issue.)

Here are the rules that I think should be in every household (you might think differently, of course, but hear me out).

Don't miss the Screen Freedom ebook


1. If you’re too young, you don’t get to play.

A lot of the kids who going nuts over video games are much younger than the recommended age of 12+. Even then, most reviews of the games like Fortnite have suggested that 13+ (or generally ‘high school’) is about right. A 15-year-old boy reviewed Fortnite for us  and he suggested that his age was about right. Ironically, older kids have been leaving the game in droves because it’s so full of younger kids.

When “all the other kids” are playing and it’s a social game, it can be really hard to stay strong. Nobody wants their kid to be the only one not included in something. The best way to tackle this is to open up more opportunities for your child to get together with their friends outside of school and away from games. Have them over, find a sport or after-school activity they can do together and sleepovers with a couple of kids all work well. My neighbour’s 10-year-old boy plays “Fortnite” in the bush with his friends after school…

This is also a good opportunity to have the “if everyone else jumped off a bridge” talk. Being true to family values is more important than fitting in.

2. You don’t play with people you don’t personally know.

If your child is younger than high school, I’d advise not giving them access to the social element of any online games. You can play Minecraft and other games on your own just fine. For high schoolers, our rule is that you don’t play with people you don’t know. That means “friends of a friend” or “so-and-so’s cousin” too. If you haven’t met them in real life, don’t engage with them online.

3. Games in the open only.

No consoles, computers, televisions, iPads or iPhones in bedrooms. That’s the rule. When games are in the open not only do parents get to keep a better eye on what’s going on, but kids are also less likely to sneak on when it’s not screen time. Chances are they won’t be waking up in the middle of the night to sneak in a quick game or two either. We break this one all the time for iPads/iPhones, but never for gaming consoles and computers.

4. Play authorised games only.

Any game my kids want to play has to pass the parent-test first. I want to check out what the kids are playing, research it a little, and know that it’s age-appropriate and fits our values (more or less). I’m far from a pearl-clutcher, but I’m vigilant about the kind of crap my kids are getting into. I want to make sure they are mature enough and wise enough to handle the crap first.

5. No games on mobiles or school computers.

I don’t often snoop through my kids’ stuff, but I do when it comes to this rule. Games are on the home computer and iPads only. No loading them onto phones or the Macs used for school. When it comes to online computer games, we work on a trust basis. So far, so good. I don’t think my kids ever want to find out what happens to games time if they are caught breaking this particular rule*.

This is how to set boundaries on video games

* What happens is there is no games time. For weeks.

6. No in-app purchases.

If you can’t play a game as-is, then don’t play. Our decision is that you don’t use real money to buy not-real things. Buying “skins” to make a pretty character is not my idea of money well-spent. When my children are earning their own regular money, they may feel differently about that and can buy pixels to their hearts’ content. Until then, even pocket money and birthday money can’t be used for in-app purchases. (For the record, this is the only time I ever tell my kids what they can’t do with their own money.)

7. Screen time is a privilege, not a right.

This will work differently in every home, but at our place we have set times for screen time and only if certain things are done first. Your room has to be clean, you have to have any homework / study time done, all set chores are done, you’ve been nice to your mother. Parents reserve the right to cancel screen time at a moment’s notice. If a kid argues when screen time is over (“just a second!”, “one more minute”, “when this battle is over”, etc), they are banned from screens at the next screen time.

8. It’s not a negotiation.

The rules are not open to negotiation on a daily basis. We discuss screen rules every now and then at a “family meeting”, but otherwise I don’t want to hear about it. Trying to wheedle more screen time or have a tantrum when you have to get off, or break any of the rules in this list, and it’s a total screen ban for at least 48 hours. Annoy me too much and it might be a week.

9. Work with me and I’ll work with you.

Note the above, but let me clarify. Screen rules at our place have been worked out together with the kids.

We have an agreement that we all more-or-less try to stick to. It works both ways: one of the things we agreed is to give the kids some leeway at the end of screen time. So, yes, you can finish your battle / building a wall / watching a YouTube tutorial, but it’s tools down the minute that’s done. We’ve also agreed to be flexible about screens whenever it’s a rainy day or during lockdown.

You’ll find a lot more information about how we manage screens at our place (and the many, many things a kid could be doing instead of playing video games), in my ebook Screen Freedom. Screen freedom is giving up the hold screens have in our lives and taking back control of our kids’ spare time. Click here to find out more.

How’s the gamer temper tantrums at yours?

Feature image by Gaelle Marcel (modified by Mumlyfe); boys playing video games by Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock; girl gamer by Anton27/Shutterstock

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