Bascom Publishing
Source: Bascom Publishing

I’m at a packed restaurant with my family and the service is taking forever. We’ve discussed our week, played a few games of Sugar Packet Hockey™, even mustered a few rounds of charades, and still no food. My kids are on the brink of mutiny – how about a little Angry Birds on my iPhone to soothe the savage beasts? What to do?

It’s a weeknight, the homework is done (as far as I know), and there’s an hour before bedtime. We could do some extra reading, but the kids really want to play Mario Kart. What to do?

It’s Saturday morning and sleeping in seems like the best idea ever. But the kids are up and roaring at 6am. Would an hour or two in front of the electronic babysitter be the end of the world? What to do?

What the breastfeeding, cry-it-out, and spanking controversies are to the infant-to-toddler crowd, the “screen time dilemma” is to the toddler-thru-teen set. It’s divisive, polarizing, and fraught with conflicting advice depending on who you ask. There are purists at each pole, claiming abstinence or indulgence to be the only solution. Only a brave few enter the murky gray area, willing to tackle the less tidy “sometimes” and “it depends.” Messy as it might be, as a parent and clinician I know the answers are rarely black and white.

Enter Dr. Joe Dilley, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents and author of “The Game is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug and Reconnect in the Digital Age.” Dilley plows into the muck and provides a balanced, even-handed approach to kids and screens (website). Moderation is a difficult concept to teach most 50 year olds, let alone 15 year olds, but Dilley presents a framework and logical argument for just that.

It just so happens that Dr. Dilley lives nearby (he and his wife Dr. Carrie Dilley share a Los Angeles area practice) and he regularly volunteers with National Psychotherapy Day activities. He was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on games and parenting:

RH: What were your favorite video games growing up?

JD: I gravitated toward the original Super Mario Bros. and I'll never forget the day in grade school when my friend gave me the password to go straight to Mike Tyson in Punch Out. I memorized the code on the playground until I could get back to class and write it down.

RH: What did you love about video games?

JD: Well I loved movies and TV shows because they felt really personal--like the talking head on the screen was speaking directly to you, the viewer, or putting on a show just for you. And when I got my Nintendo, it was like I got to assume the role of both the person watching AND the person on the screen because I directed his every move. I didn't have to watch somebody else fight Tyson. I got to fight Tyson! 

RH: Kids love games and videos, parents love a break when their kids are docile and don’t demand their time. So what’s wrong with video games?

JD: That's the trickiest thing about this whole screen time dilemma. While there's nothing inherently wrong with gaming or tech, the content can be fundamentally inappropriate even though it might look harmless on the surface. Or the length of time or time of day that the device is used can create huge problems, like a domino effect that takes a toll on work, school, and relationships. 

Today's games are engineered to go on forever! So while Tyson used to quickly knock you out, forcing you to start all over so you'd eventually decide to take a break or to get in bed on time, a game like Minecraft simply has no "Game Over." It just keeps rewarding you with virtual commodities for continuing to play. It's the proverbial slot machine that you can't pull yourself away from. 

RH: What research is being done in this area? What does science have to say?

JD: Some games like Minecraft are great for developing problem-solving and navigation skills, and visual spatial awareness, but there are plenty of games and online services out there that engage you, virtually, in the kind of activity we already have too much of in our society, like violence, greed, and objectifying one another for our own pleasure. 

It turns out that playing violent video games for long periods of time interrupts the development of empathy and moral reasoning. And the blue light emitted by most screens inhibits melatonin, which is a natural sleep agent, so it's more difficult to get to sleep if you're on a device, or to get the same quality of sleep if you've just been on one.

RH: In a nutshell, how can parents guide their kids toward healthy choices?

JD: Take it case by case, child by child, game by game. A simple rule of thumb in each instance would be taking a moment to consider whether to take a "homeopathic" or a "western medicine" approach. The homeopathic route would suggest that small doses--even of the potentially problematic thing--promote overall wellbeing. 

For example, occasionally using an appropriate app can help us connect with the world, exchange information, and exercise self-control--assuming we're able to turn off the screen. The western medicine route reminds us that it's sometimes necessary to blast away a threat altogether, like if it's fundamentally dangerous, as is the case when young kids go unmonitored onto social media in the middle of the night...or if the app is so compelling that the gamer becomes the one who's being played, because he can't exercise the willpower to turn it off. That's when it might be time to block it or remove it altogether. 

One of the ideas I put forward in the book is the idea that perhaps what we ought to spend our time making "go viral" are the healthy tech habits we establish in our individual homes so that we can learn from and be inspired by one another.

RH: Want to join me in a game of Halo?

JD: Definitely! But we really have to keep it under 16 hours this time. 

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You can come take a look at my website and Facebook page, but don't let your kids loiter around those sites. Want to join Dr. Dilley in fighting therapy stigma? National Psychotherapy Day is your shared connection.

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