When I was younger, my parents would tell me to turn off my Atari 2600 or my Nintendo because I was staring at the TV for too long. I remember one time in particular in which my father said something to the effect that it would ruin my eyes to play for so many hours at a time. I subconsciously rubbed my eye at that point, and he said, “Ah, hah! See?”
And I have felt self-conscious about rubbing my eyes after long sessions in front of the computer ever since.
But the main point is that I have always had this internalized idea that too much time playing video games or watching TV is bad (although it didn’t stop me from playing Civilization all night once…ok, a few times…I can stop taking turns anytime I want to!). There were health reasons, and there was also the idea that I should get outside into the fresh air more, or be more social.
As a game developer who is interested in creating entertainment that encourages curiosity, supports creativity, and promotes continuous learning, I would love to be able to watch my niece play the games I make and get not only real-time feedback but also help her on her journey to becoming a terrific person.
But when I visit, I find myself wondering if perhaps I shouldn’t contribute to even more of her screen time, as I almost invariably find her playing video games either on a tablet or on the computer.
If anything, my family is often getting her away from the computer to interact with people in the real world before she forgets how to do so. People like me, for instance. “Hey! I live over 300 miles away and only visit for a couple of days every few months. You could at least look at me once or twice!”
I know some people who use screen time as a reward for doing chores or good behavior, and taking away screen time is a punishment. By and large, their kids are not allowed to play games or otherwise use computers recreationally for more than so many hours per week.
But according to Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University, a recent study he led found that “there is only a negligibly small association between excessive screen time and higher levels of depression and delinquency among teenagers.”
Well, that’s good news. Playing too much Minecraft or Halo isn’t what leads your kids to becoming disaffected youth. Whew!
What’s more, Ferguson argues that since computers are so integral to society and how we live and work, preventing children from become familiar with modern technology is likely to prevent them from being able to participate in our increasingly fast-paced lives, which is the exact opposite of the result many parents might want when they limit screen time.
Funny, I’m pretty sure that was the argument I used to convince my parents to get me Mario Paint, which came with a mouse peripheral.
Naturally, our focus can shift from how long children play games to what games they are actually playing. I’m reminded of Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, which argued that today’s TV and video games are actually more challenging than they were decades ago, and so children watching TV and playing games today are essentially training themselves in decision-making and other important skills.
Even if too much screen time isn’t a real issue, I still might pry my niece away from games periodically, if only to be able to catch up and spend quality time together away from the screens. But the Ferguson’s study made me feel more comfortable letting my niece play games that teach responsibility and strategic thinking such as Toytles: Leaf Raking.
Of course, I also think a well-rounded video game education is in order, starting with the classics.
Let me dig out my Atari 2600…