SALT LAKE CITY — Utah mother Lisa Zumbado has two children who love to play video games: an 18-year-old boy on the autism spectrum and a 10-year-old girl with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD.
Like many parents, Zumbado has seen both positive and negative effects of the games on her children. Her daughter "has a difficult time disconnecting" while her son has found it beneficial for his struggles with social skills, she said.
But Zumbado still has questions.
"Do we allow too much because it's easy? This is a constant concern," she said.
Video games can create social connections, reinforce family bonds, improve coordination and, of course, entertain. Excessive screen time, however, can have adverse effects on individuals and families.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says 4 out of 5 households own a device to play video games, and research shows games have some powerful prosocial effects.
"We find screen time to be a blessing at our house. Our son uses it to calm down and interact with friends online. He's not always comfortable in person, but online he can be himself and walk away when he needs his space,” said Utah mother Patty Bell Sampson, who also has a son on the autism spectrum.
Zumbado said she sees something similar in her own son.
"There's very little that he's capable of doing independently that he's interested in, so he's gravitated to electronics. They compensate for social skill deficits and communication difficulties," she said.
Simply banning video games in the home can cut off a child from their safe space and friends, research shows.
In 2016, the London School of Economics and Political Science reviewed research on family media use and interviewed parents about how they use media in their home.
"Outright bans of activities such as using social media or playing video games can have consequences for young people, who may feel cut off from their peers or unable to access information and support," the organization said.
Moderation is the key to creating healthy digital habits, and moderation can be achieved through proper motivation. For a child who loves games, but procrastinates their homework, the games can be an encouragement.
"Video games are a huge motivator for my son! He gets his chores done so efficiently now that he has the opportunity to play his games when his jobs are done. Of course, we still need balance and we're working to find that still,” said Utah mom Jamie Winterton Sam.
Screen time can also be moderated through a technology plan tailored to the unique needs of the family. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a technology plan available here.
When creating a technology plan it's helpful to answer these questions:
- What changes in behavior do I want to see with digital media?
- Is video game use affecting homework? Family time?
- When will I reevaluate the plan?
For parents of older children, creating the plan with them encourages self-efficacy and encourages them to stick to the plan.
Parents can encourage healthy video game use and reinforce family bonds by playing together. Zumbado has a weekly family game night.
Some recent console games that work well for families include:
- Super Mario Odyssey: This game for the Nintendo Switch was the winner of Best Family Game at The 2017 Game Awards.
- Snipperclips: This puzzle game is also available on the Nintendo Switch and has a four-player mode.
- LEGO video games: There are many fandoms and characters represented in these games which are available across consoles. Try LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Marvel's Avenger's, LEGOWars and much more.
- Wii games: Nintendo's Wii has some of the most family-friendly games available including UDraw: Pictionary, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Mario Kart and a series of Family Party games.
When finding a healthy balance with video games in your room, keep in mind that not all children and not all families are alike. For parents like Zumbado and Sampson, having children with different abilities can present unique concerns.
“Our review of current parenting advice suggests that providers seek to address the widest array of families. Thus, the available advice addresses parents generically, rarely differentiating by the child's age, household circumstances or parental familiarity with digital media,” said the London School of Economics and Political Science in a study.
Ultimately, you know your family’s circumstances best and will need to find your own strategy and plan to motivate and moderate videos games at home.