How much time should kids spend playing video games?

Most parents fret about how to control kids' screen time. There's no one answer, and most of us are feeling our way. Here are three different approaches from three different families

Path of most resistance

When I gave birth to my son eight years ago, I was determined to be a bohemian earth mother, to feed him organic food and offer him unlimited access to nature. Although I spend most of my days attached to a computer, I didn’t want that life for him. I wanted him to be free from the overstimulation of technology, to roam the world of his imagination. When he entered kindergarten, I was horrified to see his friends playing hand-held games in the hallway, in cars, at restaurants. Not my son, I vowed. There would be no video games in his hands or in my house.

When he hit grade two, I began to understand that my no-screen home wasn’t a popular place for his friends to play. My son made it clear to me that he was being excluded from conversations at school. Suddenly, it seemed, my well-intentioned rules were turning him into a social outcast.

So when his weekly allergy shots started to really bother him, I relented, thinking a Nintendo DS might help distract him from the pain. My doctor gave me the thumbs-up. But I made it clear: He would play only at the doctor’s office, only for the hour we spent there (mostly waiting), and only once a week.

But now my son, not satisfied with this, asks to play on weekends or after school. Sometimes, when my husband and I are too busy cleaning, cooking or running around the house, we cave in. And currently we have a Nintendo Wii as well, thanks to my mother, which we let my son use for a maximum of one hour on weekends (with some flexibility for when his continuous begging erodes our good sense). Then there are computer games. I don’t have rules for those because he doesn’t ask often. When he does and it seems fair, I’ll let him play for half an hour.

My concern persists, though. If my son plays video games for more than an hour, he becomes glassy-eyed and hypnotized. He can’t talk or pay attention to anything else. He never quits voluntarily, but has to be yelled at to stop. I don’t like him like that. And I begin to panic that, as a teen, he will become obsessed with a video game and not be able to do or think about much else.

But I want him to have friends. So I negotiate new rules every day. It’s exhausting and I mostly make it up as I go, regretting that I ever let these devices into the house. I fantasize about living somewhere without Internet access, without toy stores and commercials, where my rules wouldn’t have such severe social consequences for my son. But unless we move — an unlikely scenario — I’ll have to keep navigating new territory, and hope that my ever-shifting boundaries will curb his appetite and help him understand that he can have fun without electronics.

– Cori Howard

A bold ban (with a few loopholes)

“Turn off the idiot box!” my mother would say when I was 10 years old, loafing around watching Charlie’s Angels after school. Now that I’m a mom, TV is the least of my worries.

Each of my kids has a personal screen poison. Seth, 13, hibernates with his laptop, tapping on a website aptly named Addicting Games; Rachel, 11, carries on simultaneous chats on Facebook, MSN, bebo, iChat and Skype with the fingers of a virtuoso; and seven-year-old Aaron races from PVR-taped shows to the computer’s YouTube clips to a dozen rounds of Wii (“Wait! I just have to beat this level!”).

With technology eating up so much family time, my husband and I did the unthinkable: We banned screens Monday to Friday. (On weekends they can OD on the stuff.)
At first, we had a mutiny on our hands. The kids pleaded, cajoled, argued. But we stood firm. For two weeks. Then came the loopholes.

Friday afternoon, my kids informed me, was technically the start of the weekend. After all, school was out. And, they argued, between hockey, art, voice lessons and skiing, weekends weren’t exactly free for screens. OK, fine. As of 4 p.m. on Friday, screens are on.

Soon, though, it wasn’t just Fridays. Aaron started scoring screen time at after-school playdates. We couldn’t very well control his actions at friends’ houses, could we?

And when Rachel asked to go online because a boy was rumoured to have invited her to his lunch table, or Seth wanted to make plans on Skype rather than by phone, it was hard to say no. A computer junkie myself (I can’t help checking my iPhone at stoplights), how could I deny their right to communication, especially if it was in quick jaunts on- and off-screen?

Then, one Tuesday night, after Aaron was asleep, Seth and Rachel came down in their PJs. “Let’s make popcorn and watch The Biggest Loser, Mom,” they said. Breaking my own rule should have been a struggle. But after school, my kids had practised piano, finished homework and taken baths. Plus, there was nothing I wanted more than to flake out in front of the screen.

Now we call ourselves a house with no weekday screens — sort of. The fact is, we are living in a virtual world where exceptions must be made. And we make ours on a click-by-click basis.

– Randi Chapnik Myers

Laissez-faire (with restrictions)

When it comes to rules around gaming, I’m embarrassingly relaxed, especially for someone who works at a parenting magazine. My kids all have hand-held games, and we have a Sony PS3, which my 12-year-old son loves (he even helped pay for it) and he’s on every day.

But I don’t fret for a number of reasons. First, we don’t allow adult-rated or “M” games and we limit PS3 time to about an hour a day. I say “about” because some days it’s more — when the weather is bad or I need to keep Riley away from his sisters, or when he has a brand new game he’s just dying to conquer, which can be a bit of an obsession. Still, once he has conquered a new game, poof! — he moves on to something else.

My girls, ages 14 and eight, have different screen vices. Hayley, my high-schooler, has her own laptop (“I need it for homework!”), which she uses to chat, download songs and create bits of photo art and short movies. In some ways, I consider her computer a virtual sketch pad. (She also sketches old-school style.)

Meanwhile, Molly’s interest in her DSi comes and goes; she’s either playing a nurturing game (My Baby Girl or Harvest Moon, for example) or taking and distorting photos. I actually put more restrictions on a bigger problem — her TV viewing (“I just have to watch this episode of JONAS before iCarly comes on!”).

Riley is the only one whose time I really monitor. But it’s not a huge concern because it’s not his only extracurricular. The kid loves sports and will gladly drop the controller for a spontaneous game of catch, tag, hide-and-seek, road hockey — you name it. In fact, with all of my kids, screen time is just one of many things that they do.

I also try to be calm about Riley’s love of gaming because I don’t want to fuel his interest by making it into forbidden fruit. If I outlawed it, he’d just do it at his friends’ houses. This way, I can monitor what he plays and for how long.

The social aspect is also key. Boys find a camarad-erie in their shared experiences of sports, school and, yes, gaming. Even not-so-little boys can relate. A few months ago, my husband got into some World War II game with Riley. When I told him I didn’t like the killing part, Patrick said, “It’s OK because they’re Nazis.” Riley outplayed him, by the way, every time.

– Jacqueline Kovacs

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