One of the biggest challenges facing every parent today is teaching their children discernment and moderation in their use of electronic entertainment. And that challenge only intensifies once a child reaches their teen years.
By the age of 15 or so, our kids need to be well on the way to self-limiting their indulgence in video or online gaming. Healthy gaming habits will serve them well once they leave home.
But what if your teen’s not showing as much self-control as you’d like? What if your teen’s excessive gaming is really worrying you?
That’s a pressing concern for many parents. At this age, it’s not as if we can simply lock up the gaming console. If teens have the motive, then the means and opportunity for gaming are as close as their phone or computer.
And all the dire warnings about gaming? They may stress out parents but, by and large, teen gamers don’t give them a second thought.
If they’re handing in assignments on time and getting reasonable grades, many teens feel entitled to make their own decisions about gaming in their free time. Spoken or unspoken, that’s the deal they’ve made with parents, as many teens see it.
So what arguments are we left with to convince our teens to cut back their gaming time? Or to convince them to cooperate with the limits we want to put in place?
If we want to get our kids’ attention, a good place to start is by engaging our teens in respectful discussions about how meaningful their gaming is.
First, learn what makes gaming meaningful to your teen
Bob Waliszewski, director of Focus on the Family’s Plugged In entertainment guide, writes in his book Plugged-In Parenting, "Even though training our children to be savvy about entertainment is an important life skill, any attempt to achieve that harshly with unexplained, stern boundaries is counterproductive. . . . even the best rules must be enforced with love."
Part of loving discipline is understanding our child’s perspective. If we plan to reign in our teen’s gaming time, we’re more likely to win our child’s cooperation if we can show that we understand why gaming is important to them. In other words, we can help our teen by showing that we fully appreciate what loss of gaming time means to them.
It’s a mistake – and an insult – to suggest to kids that gaming is just "mindless entertainment." Teens know their games are not mindless. Most are complex and challenging, and that’s a big part of their appeal. Some kids believe the mental workout and knowledge they gain from their games justifies all the time they’ve invested.
For many kids, a shared interest in gaming helps them build and maintain friendships. Kids can be at a social disadvantage when their experience of a game lags behind their peers’ experience. As my own son explained it, "It’s like being stuck watching the first TV show in a season, while everyone else is talking about the season finale. You can’t be part of the conversation, and they reveal all the spoilers."
Some kids will hanker after specific games, and reject others, because they’re targeting the games most likely to become iconic experiences for their age group. It’s somewhat akin to a child in the 1970’s sensing, ahead of time, that the original release of the movie Star Wars was not to be missed. Understandably, kids don’t want to miss out on such important shared experiences.
Remember, too, that in restricting or eliminating your teen’s gaming privileges, you might be inadvertently removing the carrot that’s motivating them to put in a good effort in school. Most kids who appreciate electronic games are well aware that a slip in grades could put their gaming time in jeopardy!
If you’ve never actually played your kids’ video or online games with them, make a point of trying their favourites. (Ask your teen if there’s an in-game beginner tutorial. Or, alternatively, search online for summaries of how each game works.) Games can be a fabulous point of connection with your kids. Moreover, "getting in the game" will help you understand why insisting on certain rules – such as a hard and fast end time to your teen’s gaming session – might not be reasonable for some games.1
All that said, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t put stricter limits on your teen’s gaming time, but it will help win your child’s cooperation if they see you making informed decisions, and if you can show your teen that you sympathise with the loss they feel. Your relationship with your child can withstand their feelings of loss, but you want to avoid feelings of injustice.2
Help make gaming less meaningful to your teen
In her book, Screens and Teens, Kathi Koch writes, "Our young people want to change the world. They see authority figures, world problems, and even the daily news through this filter. . . . They want to be a part of something that means something to the world."
In other words, teens want to know that their life has purpose. We can fuel that passion for a big purpose, and at the same time, use it steer our teen away from less meaningful pursuits.
To that end, we need to speak promises like Ephesians 2:10 ("For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.") into our teen’s life over and over until they grasp that it really is true for them. Our teen son or daughter was created to glorify God by accomplishing good works, which God already has in mind for them. We need to say it, and pray it, and believe it about them ourselves until – one day – our teen wakes up and realises, I really am loved by God! God really does think I can play a part in His work in the world!
Once teens are fired up with that vision – reaching for whatever God has for them now and in the future – the meaningfulness of gaming in their lives can only diminish in comparison.
And along the way, we can gently influence our teen’s perspective with questions like this one:
Do you remember when you reached prestige 10 in Call of Duty: Black Ops? Do you remember how pumped you were? What does that mean to you now?
We can add other voices to ours as well. Time away at a Christian camp can be powerful for setting a new direction for teens. A renewed glimpse of the mission God’s calling them to, combined with the break away, makes it easier for our teen to set new and healthier gaming habits once they return home.
Make a point of serving others in need in your community as a family, and look for opportunities for your teen to serve alongside their peers. And don’t give up your efforts to inspire other new passions in your teen. Your teen’s games themselves can give clues to potential new interests. If your teen loves the swordplay aspect of their games, for example, then an offer of fencing or kendo lessons is likely to be far more meaningful to your teen than, say, guitar lessons. Brainstorm together ideas for other activities your teen could switch to when their gaming time’s up. That’s especially important when summer holidays are just around the corner.
As much as your teen may complain and resist your efforts, work to ensure your teen doesn’t slide away from feeling like part of the family. Be resolute about insisting that they join in on milestone family activities, such as annual holidays, and plan some kind of "family adventure" at least once a month. Perhaps you can splurge a little on "cool-to-tell-friends-about" activities, like spending a morning together learning kiteboarding. Your child’s memories of their last years in your home should include memories of meaningful family times – not simply memories of hours spent gaming. Those memories will help inform their own parenting skills one day.
Ensure your expectations are meaningful to your teen
In online forums and comment threads, frustrated young gamers often express the sentiment, I don’t understand what my parents want from me! They’re picking up a continuous negative vibe from their parents about their gaming, but without specific guidelines in place, they see no way to satisfy their mum or dad. There’s no way for them to resolve the tension.
We’ll help our teen – and ourselves – if we can clearly articulate what our concerns are about their gaming, and also state clear goals for our teen regarding their gaming time.
Are we concerned because our teen’s not learning important life skills? Because they’re not doing their share of chores? Because they don’t seem to be socialising enough? Because their tardiness to the dinner table seems so rude? We need to speak aloud the worries whirling around in our head so we’re not simply projecting vague discontent, but presenting clear issues our teen then has a chance to address.
Discussing your concerns will help you decide on the guidelines you want to establish for your teen. You may want to see your teen limiting their gaming to a weekly average of two hours a day, but perhaps you should consider adding something extra that addresses your other underlying worries. For example, if you’re concerned about life skills, you may want to add the requirement that your teen cooks a meal for the family once a week.
Talk to your teen, and together, establish some clear, workable guidelines – and consequences for not meeting them. If they could, most gamers would like to make peace between their two loves: their parents and their gaming.
In some games, for example, if a player quits the game before a "match" (a.k.a. campaign) is completed, their remaining team members will very likely lose the match. And the player themself carries forward certain penalties. When a parent insists on a hard and fast end time for games like these, the teen player often has to choose between divided loyalties: disobeying their parent, on the one hand, or frustrating their friends and weakening their value to the team in future games.
Here’s another idea to consider: For two weeks or so, have your teen keep a gaming diary. The goal is to track, for each day, number of hours played, which games your teen played, and names of friends they played with. The information will give you better insight into which games your teen is playing, so you can ask questions like, What are the goals in this game? What do you like most about it? You may even discover your teen is spending less time gaming than you thought. Or, alternatively, the information may help your teen realise that they really are spending a lot of time gaming that might be better spent on a different activity.