Does intense video game use signal the collapse of parenting?

Lisa Garmezy, HPD Psych Services

Leonard Sax is a psychologist and a family doctor who in March confidently told a Houston audience how to raise kids. He blamed the “collapse of parenting” for young people’s lack of interest in making a meaningful contribution to society or even paying their own bills.

Sax claimed that children and teens today are more oriented toward peers than parents. Bonds of respect across generations have disappeared. Peer-oriented kids are anxious kids, he believes, because unlike loving parents, peers will turn on you in a flash.

He admonished us to stop “transferring authority” to our children. Parents, not kids, need to be in charge.

Sax is selling a lot of books, but his arguments are shaky. Generally, the more authoritarian—rather than authoritative—you are, the more rebellious your kids become. No evidence supports his claim that kids are more peer-oriented than in the past: When it comes to big decisions, like picking a job, a college or a major purchase, most still want our guidance. Young people have always gradually shifted their attention away from home as they search for a life partner.

Still, the “gut up and take responsibility” message resonates with parents, including this one. He reminds us to set limits. Letting kids do something because it makes them happy doesn’t cut it unless your vision for your little one is preoccupation with gaming, porn and social media.

Drawing a Line

Limits are particularly important – and challenging – when it comes to screen time, the always available, always affordable babysitter. Professionals agree that children under two should have no screen time except for video chatting, and that preschoolers under five should have no more than one hour a day, preferably with an adult “co-viewing.” After that, the battle is on.

Sax’s speech offered practical recommendations. Recharge phones in the parents’ bedroom starting one hour before bedtime. Ban earbuds in the car, so you know what children are listening to. Fight for family meals with no screens. By all means, use technology to keep track of your kid, he said. Do so openly, keeping deceit out of your relationship. The phone app or vehicle tracker is a deterrent, not a tattletale.

Taking Aim at Video Games

Sax was intensely critical of video games, citing research that an inability to read emotions in real humans is correlated with heavy play. Knowing that a total ban is unrealistic, he recommends 40 minutes per school night and one hour per weekend night, with no “rollover minutes.” Parents magazine suggests a slightly more generous hour on weeknights and two hours on weekends.

No one is quite sure what heavy game play does to the developing brain or how serious internet addiction is. Since 97 percent of American kids aged 12 to 17 play some sort of video games, it’s rather like a broad-scale experiment we’re running on our kids. Actually, we’re running it on our boys, who Sax said play games 13 hours per week in contrast to girls’ four hours.    

It’s true that gaming may improve selected attention and visual skills. Players may learn to keep looking for alternate solutions when they encounter obstacles, a great lesson for real life. In a world of scheduled activities and cautions about stranger danger, games like Fortnite can offer a sense of freedom, feelings of success, and the opportunity to connect with friends.

Don’t get too comfortable, however. Unfortunately, the top three sellers in 2016 – Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1 and Grand Theft Auto V – all reward killing behavior. Sax and the American Psychological Association urge parents to recognize that these plots have a different impact than more benign story lines.

This is what we know most clearly about gaming: There is, according to APA, “a direct association between violent video game use and aggressive outcomes” measured in a variety of ways, including teacher reports of who is pounding on whom in a classroom. An association or correlation does not mean that game-playing caused the aggression. But still.  Believe the science. You cannot shield your child entirely from violent games, but as with alcohol, it is wise to at least delay the child’s use of it. Avoid games based on a “moral inversion,” in the speaker’s words, where bad behavior is good and good behavior is bad.

Also take the advice of Dr. Victoria Dunckley in Psychology Today: Notice what gaming is doing to your kid. If it leaves him or her “revved up, stressed out, and primed for a meltdown,” you’ve got a bigger problem than if your child engages in a variety of activities and cooperates when told to shut it down. By the way, he wants a 10-minute warning to wrap up and save his progress.

Loving Means Limits

Police officers talk a lot about not getting complacent, that is, keeping your guard up. You vet your kids’ friends and monitor their whereabouts. Please extend some of that caution to the games that are literally getting inside your children’s heads, filling them with age-inappropriate imagery and bathing their brains in fight-or-flight chemicals.

Contrary to Sax’s preaching, parents should discuss and negotiate issues with kids, not just dictate to them. As I’ve written before, kids need to practice decision-making while you’re there to help them learn from mistakes. Developing compliance is inadequate preparation for life because you want them to be able to give orders as well as take them.

But video games, social media and the visual media are too seductive to allow children to make their own choices, except in the case of mature high schoolers. Your child’s judgment will not stand up to the marketing and temptations of the $43.8 billion-dollar video game industry. Cut-offs need to be established.

Sax commented, “Be willing to upset your child. It’s your job.”