While growing up, my son, Jonathan, enjoyed gaming on a screen as much as anyone else. He’d spend hours in front of a video game, until we finally came up with an equation: The number of hours he spent in front of a screen must be matched with hours interacting with real people, learning interpersonal skills, reading non-verbal cues and developing his emotional intelligence. It was a good equation and helped him immensely with his people skills. Over the years, however, I’ve recognized a reality I often missed as a parent or leader.
When it comes to navigating the gaming world, it’s vitally important we understand the real problem. Gaming is not intrinsically wrong or even necessarily unhealthy. The reason gaming is often a problem is because it is an artificial replacement of what was, in the past, a normal part of social, physical, and mental development. Heavy gaming can satisfy a natural drive to solve problems, pursue friendships or romantic relationships, and can even replace the drive to participate in physical activities like exercising or playing sports. The drive to do all of these things comes from a desire for accomplishment. Accomplishments achieved through a game fulfill these desires and can cause gamers to be more placated toward other activities. This means that the greatest way parents can help children with heavy gaming tendencies is to re-introduce external stimuli and pair those experiences with meaningful conversations. Let me offer a few ideas of how you can do this:
- Ask deep questions in new environments
Get your child outside of normal environments like going outdoors or on a road trip, and ask them questions about their future. Asking deep questions and engaging with them through listening can challenge your teen or young adult to focus on what they want to accomplish outside of their digital alternative realities. You could even use this time to ask your child if they think gaming is having negative effects on them.
- Look for signs of addiction and offer exciting alternatives
When you notice signs of addiction, offer exciting alternatives to show them that the outside world has something to offer that a game can’t replace. Go rock climbing, encourage them to go on a date, or go to a theme park. Associating positive and exciting experiences in non-media driven environments can help to realign the part of their brain that is starting to associate satisfaction with a screen.
- Find your teen or young adult a mentor who they admire
It’s hard to listen to people who are always around. One of the best things that can happen to your teen or young adult is for them to find a mentor who they look up to. Having a mentor makes young people more likely to listen and follow advice. Sometimes all a child needs to hear is the same thing from a different person.
Do You Play with your Kids?
Can I make hypothesis at this point? It’s probable that some parents reading this looked at the three suggestions above and wondered if their child was even ready for these types of conversations. I imagine there are many parents in this scenario, where your children aren’t responsive at all to your attempts to get through to them. I want to offer a suggestion to you as well: play the game with your child. There will always be a gap between generations of parents and their children, but never before has there been such a gap between the norms of today’s teens and the adult world. In other words, your kids are participating in activities and dealing with problems that were not in existence when you were their age. Playing games with your child, even for brief moments, can create a bond and help you to understand some of what’s going on in their world.
At Growing Leaders, we realized this need to game along with students a few years ago, which is why we’ve recently launched a “gamified” version of our Habitudes® curriculum for classrooms. We want to accentuate the positive effects of technology to make our content come alive to a generation of students who love to compete online. Aside from basic problem solving skills and eye-hand coordination, gaming can introduce students to new social situations, push them to think creatively, and even prepare them for future jobs that are expanding right now in the job market.
As we’ve piloted our “gamified” Habitudes with a handful of student groups, we’ve been amazed at how they grasp timeless principles surrounding discipline, identity, decision-making, character and responsibility because we “spoke their language.” In other words, the content was timeless, but the pedagogy became relevant. They were first exposed to concepts on a screen (on-line), and then were engaged in conversation afterward (off-line) in face-to-face conversations. Screen time. Face time.
Studies today show when it comes to over-indulging in screen time, parents are often a part of the problem. This means when parents tell kids that they’ve been playing games for too long, it often comes across hypocritical. (We all binge on something don’t we?) I suggest you play games with your child for a brief period of time, setting the stage for you to invite them to do something with you. You can then use the break from media to get your whole family to connect in more face-to-face interactions. Gaming is changing the way we parent in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a source of division in your household. If your kids play a lot of games it’s ultimately because they want to feel significant. Your job as a parent in moments like these is to teach them that significance doesn’t come through a screen, it comes from the people we serve, and the good we make of the world around us for future generations.
I invite you to join me in equipping our “screenagers” for life.
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