"Dad, I really want a PSP," my seven-year-old son Navarre recently said to me.
He does not know too much about the hand-held gaming console from Playstation, only that one of his friends has one and he watched his friend play it and thought it was really cool. Last year, the game of choice was a Nintendo wii, which my family decided to all pitch in and get him for Christmas after my sister argued the physical exercise benefits of the device. I am, however, concerned at how much the latest technologies and games are impacting children's lives today.
As Christmas approaches, I am guessing many parents are asking themselves similar questions: "What gadgets and games are appropriate for my child? And, "how much time on these devices should I give my kids?" Many of us do not want to exclude our kids from the latest technologies, but at the same time know how easily games can take over a child's life, such that they become less able to creatively entertain themselves. Games then are not just a fun activity to do at certain times, but the only way the children know how to keep themselves occupied. They begin to see everything else, including board games, reading, or playing outside as "boring."
As a child, I should mention, I played lots of video games, and enjoyed them immensely. In fact, among my family and close friends, I think it is fair to say I was the best video game player. I often spent my weekly allowance at the local five-and-dime playing pinball, or games like Pacman and Joust. My favorite game was Missile Command, where you had to protect a series of command centers from incoming enemy missiles. I got so good at the game, in fact, I was able to make the game go a bit haywire when I would break the million point mark, a score the game apparently was not set up to be able to register. I liked the challenge of games, and the opportunity to build my skill and test myself.
However, at that time there were limits to my game playing. I primarily played in arcades, spending my limited weekly allowance on each game, so usually after an hour I was out of money and had to go home. I was also limited by the store hours, usually unable to access games after 7pm. I could not carry the game home or in a car or play the same game endlessly. Today, kids can essentially "play all the time," carrying their game in the car, to a movie, or to the store. The game is then "always accessible."
In fact, walk into family homes today and one is likely to see much of the family in front of different screens - the parents on their laptop or TV, the kids with their PSP or Nintendo DS. We live together but in our own worlds. At the same time gaming has increased, child obesity rates have skyrocked in recent years, with studies suggesting that "nearly 1 of every 3 children is at risk of being overweight" and that "Screen Time is directly related to lower cardiorespiratory endurance." Essentially, screens we could say have taken over much of our lives. This is not necessarily "bad," but if we do not pay attention, it can easily begin to impact our lives and families in negative ways.
So, how does a parent navigate in this time, a time when more of us seem to have less free time, and when a few hours of a kid occupied in a video game can give us time to rest, do the laundry, or cook dinner?
For me, I have generally tried to limit my son's screen time to an hour a day, and to never suggest to him "why don't you just watch some TV." I also tend to let him play games or watch TV when he has a friend over with which to share in the activity, so he is experiencing it together with someone. The danger I think is when games begin to serve as a substitute for direct human interaction. Maybe the real question is less, "should I allow my kid to play video games?" and more, "Can my child find creative ways to entertain him or herself? Can he or she look another person in the eye when speaking? Does he or she have empathy when someone else is hurting?"
The real issue may less be about games, and more, "Can we support pro social and emotional learning in our children? Can we help them see the value of direct human contact so they can find a balance with video games?"
I certainly do not judge parents who don't set limits to a child's use of video games, and I know that for many single parents, they have limited options. At the same, I wonder what message we are giving kids today when we let video games serve as their sole means of entertainment. Surely parenting is meant to be more than finding ways to keep our kids entertained. How much have we relinquished our parenting responsibilities to Nintendo and Playstation? And how much in the long run will we pay, both individually and collectively as a society, for abdicating this responsibility?
If you are also exploring how to balance games and other devices with your children, please share your thoughts below.
Soren Gordhamer is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009) and the organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference.