There’s a lot of fear and misinformation around our kids’ love of online gaming. But there's also cause for genuine concern - especially right now, as COVID-19 restrictions have ignited an explosion in gaming-related screen-time.
Yes, gaming can be beneficial and just plain fun. But it can also lead to problematic use - and even addictive behaviours.
Bottom line: All children need help setting limits.
Let’s look at the facts
According to research by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, 81% of children aged 8 to 17 play online games - and so do 67% of the wider Australian population.
Those are recent figures. But in the past six months, since the onset of the global pandemic, gaming activity has risen dramatically among all age groups.
In the past six months, since the onset of the global pandemic, gaming activity has risen dramatically among all age groups.
In the month of April, game sales were 73% higher than last year, with sales totalling US$1.5 billion. In May and June alone, a global tracking study found spending on games increased 39% - with overall market growth expected to top US$170 billion this year.
At the same time, the lockdowns saw a significant spike in the percentage of players who described themselves as “serious gamers” - from 63% to 82%.
The benefits - and the risks
Experts are quick to point out that gaming has many benefits - especially for children stuck at home with limited opportunities for real-life interactions or in some cases even outdoor play.
Games can help kids improve coordination and memory, and help with problem-solving skills and even develop greater concentration.
But when fun turns to problematic use - hours and hours spent suctioned to a screen, to the exclusion of the rest of life (not to mention homework) - parents are right to be concerned.
Findings from the eSafety Commissioner point to some of the major safety issues for kids aged 8 to 17: bullying and harassment, interactions with strangers and in-app purchases.
Gambling is another concern, as games with gambling-like features - think “loot boxes” and bundles - make the wagering habit feel more familiar and normal for young people. Even “skins,” which are used in many games to enhance players’ weapons or online appearance, can be used to gamble, and even be converted to cash on third-party sites.
And then there is the problem of overuse. “Gaming disorder” has now been classified as a disease by the World Health Organization. Its main symptoms include:
But it’s important for parents to recognise that gaming disorder, like any other diagnosable addiction, occurs very rarely - in this case affecting somewhere between .003 and 1% of the gaming population.
(A widely publicised 2010 Sydney University study that found up to 10% of gamers showed “signs of addictive behaviour,” defined problematic use as playing longer than planned, and playing “despite knowing one should not do it.” Many experts - and most parents - would today see such behaviour not as addictive but simply “annoying but normal.” )
It’s also important for concerned parents to know that problematic gaming has been shown to occur alongside other factors - loneliness, for example, and anxiety and depression. Some experts believe “addictive” gaming may be a symptom, not a cause, of these underlying issues.
What can parents do to manage gaming?
A lot, actually. Parents can ensure gaming takes place in a safe and secure environment - not in kids’ bedrooms - and can teach kids to build healthy online habits to protect their privacy and build awareness of time spent online.
They can stay involved - having regular and open conversations about their child’s gaming interests and habits, including any worries or concerns they might have. Playing alongside your child occasionally is a must, and can lead to a real breakthrough in understanding on both sides.
The Office of the e-Safety Commissioner, along with cyber educators, child psychologists and law enforcement professionals, strongly recommends the use of parental controls on both mobile devices and gaming consoles.
The Family Zone Box
Cyber expert Nic Embra, aka The Cyber Safety Tech Mum, knows firsthand what a difference Family Zone parental controls can make to family health and harmony. For managing gaming, says Nic, the Family Zone Box is the ideal choice.
“The Family Zone Box protects all devices in the home, including smart TVs and gaming consoles. The Box connects into the existing modem/router which creates a ‘Safe’ network to connect the children’s devices to. Age profiles prevent children from accessing content that they are not old enough to view.”
As the mum of three, Nic knows how important it is to be able to customise controls. “I can set separate screen time routines for them, popping their devices into one of the 4 different modes - Play, School, Study & Sleep - depending on the time of day.
“But I don't feel locked into the routines because I can change them on the fly with the Parent Family Zone app on my phone.”
With the Family Zone Box, gaming no longer distracts Nic’s kids from their homework - “Study mode allows my kids to access the internet for homework but prevents them from going down the YouTube Rabbit hole!.” And it’s ended arguments around screen-time limits, too.
“The screen time management function complements parental supervision - ie. the internet shuts off at the time I've set and I don't have to tell them that screen time is over.”
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