Hey, New York Times, Leave Those Kids Alone

Another day, another bit of fear-mongering about video games.

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a piece on the rise of screen time among children. Chief among this article’s concerns was the fact that kids have begun to play more video games during the pandemic and are growing too attached to their screens.

“There will be a period of epic withdrawal,” Stanford professor Keith Humphreys told the publication. Humphreys also says that kids will have to learn to “sustain attention in normal interactions without getting a reward hit every few seconds.”

 As that choice snippet suggests, the rest of the piece is the same scaremongering we’ve read about video games since the early ’90s. There’s a bit about games being too violent, of course, and plenty of quotes from concerned parents. Games that kids play are talked about in the coldest and most robotic ways possible, and a general “screen bad, book good” mentality permeates the whole article. Oh, and nobody from the actual gaming industry is consulted, naturally. While this is ostensibly a news piece, it’s really just a retread of something you’ve likely read dozens of times over the past decade.

But as a treat, let’s actually engage with this idea that kids are gaming too much during a global pandemic. Let me repeat that: a global pandemic. As in, “sorry, you can’t go outside and play with your friends, because you might die.” Instead of treating consoles, PCs, and mobile devices like the miracles that they are, and being thankful that they’ve helped kids stay in touch through this whole thing, we’re arguing in favor of restricting them.

And for what? Certainly not for their health. Despite the NYT article suggesting that modern games are turning children into mindless zombies, incapable of interacting with their friends, other science suggests the opposite.

“It’s all about the social interaction,” developmental psych professor Isabela Granic told Time last year. “You build your own gardens with other people. You play in teams overcoming other teams and militias and whatever it is. And it’s really checking a lot of those social needs in this time of isolation. And as much as kids need us, they need each other just as much.” Granic also said that instead of guilting their children over screen time, “parents should feel like they’re offering an opportunity they wouldn’t have had 30 years ago.”

That historical context is a useful lens here. Kids can barely even go outside right now, let alone with other people from school. And even if they could, maybe they’d get a lot more gratification out of building something in Roblox, or trying to trick their friends in Among Us. Time marches on, and people find new ways to engage with each other. Instead of trying to take those away, it’s more useful to build new routines and rituals around them.

It seems especially cruel, too, to engage in bloviating hysteria over this right now. The world continues to be a scary and confusing place, and for all of the extra stress that’s been added to our lives, think of how much more terrifying it is for younger kids and teens alike. They don’t have much in the way of power or agency in the world, and right now, getting lost in a game with their friends is the closest many of them have to normalcy. Gaming with others can provide much-needed regular interaction even when you can’t see somebody in the flesh, and friendships built through that can be just as vital to a child’s growth as in-person ones.

Online games will never be a replacement for hanging out IRL, of course, but I don’t think many kids think of them that way. Most are likely eager to be out of the house and doing things again – things away from their parents. There are outliers, sure, but it’s a safe bet that most kids aren’t going to get hooked on gaming and never leave the house again. Gaming isn’t real life, and children aren’t too stupid to tell the difference.

Plus, if you’re worried about screen time interfering with your kid getting other stuff done, talk to them about that. Set up reasonable expectations, like “no gaming until you do your homework, pick up a little, and do something in the yard.” There are ways to give your kids what they want and guide them towards being a productive member of society. You just have to be an active parent and talk to your kid, instead of acting as some all-knowing monolith that barks orders and takes things away because The New York Times told you to. Speaking from experience, that latter approach can do wonders at eroding a child’s trust.

So, if you’ve noticed your kid playing more games during this pandemic, don’t freak out. Instead, get to know what they’re playing, try to understand why they’re playing it, and understand that they’re just doing different stuff than you did as a kid. They have new ways of staying connected, and those ways aren’t insidious machines hellbent on enslaving your children – they’re just tools. Nothing more, nothing less.

Plus, and I don’t think I can say this enough: there is a literal pandemic killing thousands of people daily. Chet and Susie can play Among Us, Karen. It’s not going to kill them.

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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.

She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.

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