Children and Video Games: Setting Appropriate Limits

As our society becomes more technologically based, learning to use that technology becomes not just a fun diversion, but a valuable life skill.  How else are children meant to learn, but through play?  Video games sometimes get a bad reputation for “ruining” children, but as with any entertainment medium, the key is the content and how it is presented.  While it will ultimately be up to the parent to determine how much and what sort of entertainment is appropriate for their child, the following presents several options and tools to help you make sure that your child’s video gaming entertainment aligns with your wishes and values.


Every decision we make as parents seems to be life-or-death for our children, as if we’re constantly at risk of permanently screwing them up.  I wanted to start by pointing out something simple:  a recent study at Oxford (discussed more below) showed that video games, or the lack thereof, had a relatively very minor effect on a child’s development compared to things like family functionality and school relationships.  So, although we always want to do the best for our kids in every arena, it seems likely that being slightly off with too much or too little video gaming won’t ruin our kids’ lives.

So take a deep breath.


photo credit: 2010-2011 050 via photopin (license)

photo credit: 2010-2011 050 via photopin (license)

At least as important as “what” and “how much” is “how”.  Research from the Queensland University of Technology, among others (such as researchers at Arizona State University), shows that playing video games as a family can actually help build and improve relationships.  Rather than something a kid does by themselves in a dark room away from everyone, family game time can become a social, bonding experience (though you may have to be willing to learn from your kids for a change in order to play).

The setting in which games are played is also important because it establishes how much supervision is possible.  There is a world of difference between a child at a screen on the same table or couch as you and one playing a game in their own room at the far end of the house.  If your child is playing an offline game with content you know you approve of, you may only need to be able to tell whether they’re playing or not to set appropriate limits (see “Time”, below).  Games with “online interaction”, on the other hand (see “Content”, below), likely require more oversight to ensure your child isn’t drawn into any inappropriate interactions.

Setup is also important for optimum viewing and reducing eye strain.  Staring at a screen for two long can cause eye muscles to strain and eyes to dry out as blinking is reduced.  Consider the “20-20-20” rule as a rough guideline:  every 20 minutes, look at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.  For some online games, a quick break after every match can be ideal.  Blinking also slows down as we look at screens, so if your children seem to have itchy or dry eyes, encourage them to blink a bit more.  Lighting around any screen should be as even as possible, especially avoiding glare on the screen or bright lights behind the screen.  Computer screens at desktops should be about 20 – 40 inches from the face, while the optimum viewing distance from a TV will vary by size and resolution.  In any event, if your children complain of severe headaches or other symptoms when playing video games, consult your doctor (pediatrician and/or optometrist, as appropriate).


How much time should your kids spend playing video games?

For those looking for a straightforward answer, the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are for children and teens to spend no more than 1 or 2 hours per day on “entertainment media”.  Note that this includes not just video games, but also television, cell phones, the internet, etc.  The AAP also points out the importance of quality content.  The same page, however, also notes that children spend an average of 7 hours a day with such media, so don’t feel like a horrible parent if your little ones have been getting a bit more than 2 hours on occasion.  The AAP also recommends against any such entertainment for children under 2 years of age, as they are developing rapidly and need to develop skills by interacting with real people.


photo credit: Entertainment via photopin (license)

Rarely, however, is any aspect of parenting so cut-and-dried.  The same Oxford study mentioned above (and published in the journal Pediatrics) found that a little time spent playing video games was actually beneficial, a medium amount of time was neither good nor bad, and too much could be correlated with problems (like so much psychological research, separating correlation and causation becomes very difficult because humans are complicated beings).  Specifically, in children between 10 and 15, spending less than a third of their total free time playing video games was linked to being more sociable and satisfied with life, as well as having fewer hyperactivity and emotional problems, than other groups, including those who played no games at all.  Some of this may be because kids who play no games at all can become socially isolated from their peers who do play.  Participants who spent more than half their free time (estimated at more than 3 hours/day) playing video games, on the other hand, were less well adjusted.

One of the key ingredients seems to be watching how your children are adjusting to life.  If video games are keeping them from doing their homework, having fun with their family, or ever spending time “offline” with their friends, it may be time to scale back the amount of gaming time allowed.

Being able to limit time spent playing games is tied to being able to monitor their use.  To this end, consider adopting the AAP’s recommendation of establishing “screen-free” zones by having no computer, television, console, etc. in children’s rooms.  This helps you know when your children are playing games so that you can know how much they are playing.  You can also establish times that are screen-free, such as during dinner with the family.


As nerds, we like definite answers, backed by clear science.  Unfortunately, the research is decidedly mixed (and often biased or poorly conducted) regarding violence and other content in video games and how it affects children, although it seems that the effect may be small for most cases (which would be part of why it is so hard to measure).  Humans are complicated beings, and it is very difficult to measure the exact effects of any one leisure activity on development.  Ultimately, it will be up to the parent/guardian to decide what content is appropriate, but the following tools can help you figure out what is in a game without having to play the entire thing yourself beforehand.

In the United States, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, is an industry body created specifically for the purpose of assigning ratings to video games.  Almost any video game sold at a store in the United States will have an ESRB rating on the box, which gives an indication of the youngest age for which the content has been deemed appropriate:  EC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E10+ for everyone 10 and older, T for Teen, M for Mature, and AO for Adult Only content.  To find out more about the exact content of a video game, especially if your judgements and values don’t line up with the ESRB guidelines, you can go to their ratings summary page and look up the specific game.  More recent games will have a detailed summary of any content that might be considered objectionable, including descriptions of exactly what foul language is used and how any suggestive scenes are structured (and how much is shown).  For a quick search in the middle of a store, they have also developed a mobile app.  For even more in-depth information, the ESRB maintains a page of other websites that provide screen shots, videos, and more.

Be aware that any game that includes the notice “Online Interactions Not Rated By The ESRB” will include some type of user-generated content not included in the given rating.  For example, the game might include a chat feature that allows the players to talk to each other, and the ESRB rating doesn’t consider every terrible thing that another player might type into the chat or submit as part of a map or skin.  While such chats often feature language filters, they are imperfect and are especially poor at blocking any form of innuendo or euphemisms.

It should be noted that while many retailers will not sell games rated M or AO to young children, this is purely voluntary, and it is not illegal to do so.  In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association/Entertainment Software Association, 2011) that laws restricting the sale of violent video games are unconstitutional due to free speech considerations.

If you live outside the United States (or purchase foreign games), other ratings boards may fulfill the role of the ESRB.  Particularly notable is the Pan European Game Information, or PEGI, used throughout Europe, which rates games using 5 age categories of suitability (from 3 and older to 18+).  You can find information on similar organizations in other countries through lists such as those on Wikipedia.

Mobile games (such as those played on smartphones and tablets) used to be free of ESRB ratings, making them harder to shop responsibly.  The ESRB expanded into rating mobile content in 2012, and after initial resistance, Google adopted the ESRB ratings for the Google Play store (on Android phones) in March of 2015.  Apple still uses its own unique content rating system for the App Store, though an equivalency chart exists comparing these ratings to ESRB and PEGI ratings.  Beware of anything that allows “in-app purchases”, and be sure to disable purchases on your smartphone or tablet if your child will be using it without direct supervision.

Worth noting is that context may be more important than content.  Some studies have shown that whether a player is acting as a hero or a villain in the game might have as much or more of an effect on behavior than the specific actions being used.  Consider not only whether your kids are playing games where they attack enemies, but why they are attacking those enemies:  to protect others and defeat evil, as part of a mutual contest, or just for the fun of it?

Once you have decided what content is appropriate for your children, you have to keep them from playing the rest of it.  Fortunately, most modern video game systems come with built-in parental controls to let you block certain content.  Consult the manufacturer’s website for directions, or check out the appropriate ESRB resource page.

Once you have decided how, how much, and what content is appropriate for your kids to play video games, play!  Many games exist that, while appropriate for a variety of ages, can be entertaining for adults as well, from Wii party games to more educational titles or even particular snippets of other games (one of Astra’s and Dragon Child’s favorites being the Lego Harry Potter series, especially the bonus levels with no scary enemies or monsters where you can just run around blasting things and collecting studs).  If you have any favorite games to play with your kids that you’ve found particularly appropriate, or games that looked appropriate but had hidden pitfalls, please share in the comments!

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