In parenting, caution is generally the balanced position between overprotective fear and dangerous permissiveness. Your wife is wise to call for it because video games are like a number of other things parents sometimes shrug off with a blasé, “I did that and I turned out okay”: they ain’t what they used to be.
In many ways they’re much better. Realistic sound and graphics, highly-responsive controllers, and sophisticated scenarios make playing video games a delightful experience. Today’s games can provide kids with innocent, brain-stimulating pleasure, just like Pac-Man and Pong did for us. Irrational fear is not called for. On the other hand, today’s games also possess treacherous features that parents raised on Frogger and Street Fighter might not realize. There is every reason to be wary.
Video game addiction is real. Game designers are a lot smarter than your children, and they know exactly what buttons to push (no pun intended) to keep kids playing. This can lead to an army of problems. I regularly have students who can’t stay awake during class admit to playing video games until two or three in the morning. Parents should take measures to ensure that screen time is limited and a proper bedtime is enforced.
The games themselves may involve situations that parents aren’t comfortable with. Video games aren’t just for kids anymore. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2020 annual report, the average age of the American video gamer is between 35 and 44 years old. Only 21 percent of gamers are under 18. It’s no surprise then that game designers cater to more adult tastes, frequently incorporating extreme violence, sex, and drug use into game content.
Parents concerned that their children are “growing up too fast” should investigate games before letting children play. Most games are rated for age suitability, but parents should also consider using a site like PluggedIn.com, which reviews games (as well as movies and shows) for any questionable content.
That so many adults are playing video games creates another, less expected, concern. When it looks like your children are playing video games alone, they’re probably not. Many video games involve other online players. While these can be your child’s friends, they are often total strangers, and they are very often adults.
It’s common practice in video games to talk with other players through headsets. In these circumstances, your children can be hearing a whooooole lot of things you might not want them to hear. This can range from mild profanity to dangerous propositioning.
In preparing this column I spoke with a group of middle schoolers about their gaming experiences. They attested that playing online with strangers is a dicey venture. All of them had at some point been asked inappropriate personal questions. The girls in particular were vulnerable to such verbal probing. This may be because, as ESA reports, male players outnumber females 59 percent to 41 percent.
Online gaming apps increase children’s exposure to those with malevolent intentions. According to FBI Special Agent Kevin Kaufman in a report by the Tampa Bay Times, sexual predators seduce children through video games and arrange to meet them in person where the kids are then captured and trafficked.
“You’re pretty much inviting the world into your living room with these online gaming apps,” Kaufman said. “Anywhere where people have access to the internet and access to kids, some people are going to try to use it as a tool to lure kids out.” If those words don’t inspire caution, I don’t know what would.
In this case a bit of helicoptering isn’t a bad idea. In addition to putting boundaries on screen time and investigating new games, consider making your child use speakers instead of headphones. You’ll have to endure the clamor of digital warfare, but the trade off will be that you can hear inappropriate chatter. Some experts even recommend reading the saved text messages that are sent through video games.
The students I talked to may have offered the wisest advice of all. They told me that parents need to talk to their children about the dangers, teach kids to recognize red flags, and urge them to protect themselves from sinister influences.
That would be a rational, responsible, and, ahem, cautious approach.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody. On Instagram go to jstallings.teacher_to_parent.