How Much Time Should Kids Spend Playing Video Games During COVID-19?
More screen keeps kids safe and engaged, but don't forget about other play.
Posted April 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
There is compelling evidence that video-game play in moderation can improve cognitive skills such as processing speed, executive functioning, and cognitive flexibility. In addition, game play has been associated with improvement in selective attention. Modest amounts of video-game play, about an hour a day, have been associated with improvement in psychological adjustment and self-esteem. So, yes, it’s OK for your kids to play video games.
But during the coronavirus quarantine, kids are spending as much as 50% more time on screens than in the past. While more screen time helps keep kids connected to peers and safe inside, how much time should they be playing video games? Groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) who formerly advocated restrictive limits on screen time have altered their approach for the COVID-19 quarantine.
But there is a more basic reason your children should play video games and use other technologies. Children learn from their play. Play is the primary tool that helps younger children learn and assists preteens with learning. To play with your friends in the 21st century often means using video games and other screen-based media. I am not suggesting that you should keep your kids from playing a game of ball or tag, manhunt, board games, or capture the flag. But how often do your kids go outside to play with other kids only to come home because no one else is outdoors to play with them? So if they are left with playing an online game with their classmate, at least they are socializing in their play. Kids need to play, not just to learn but also to understand how to get along with others. Play is crucial to children's growth and development, and all too often in today's driven society, play is absent from children's lives.
Digital play in which children are involved with technology (video games, coding, or social media), is simply a 21st-century style of play, the newest form of play. It’s not the best or the worst type of play, but simply a new way that children interact with each other. Play evolves. It’s not as if video games and technology play are replacing simple forms of play such as drawing with crayons, playing with dolls, or building with wooden blocks. The toys, games, and tools, and opportunities that kids have had available for play have changed dramatically in the last few decades. Think about how many kids are now involved in organized sports compared to how many were engaged 50 years ago, and now consider how many of those kids 50 years ago were girls. Consider the number of toys that many kids have in their closets. While play has always been a tool for kids’ learning, it’s been less than a century since children's play has focused on the use of toys in their play. Legos, some of the best toys for play, were only introduced in the United States in 1962. Play continues to change, and future play that uses holographic technology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence is on the horizon.
There's no question that modern forms of play rely more on the instruments of play then did traditional, old-fashioned play. Years ago it was more common for kids to play outside. Play often revolved around “toys” that consisted of whatever was available: sticks, cardboard boxes, old clothing, discarded materials - or imagination, and this is still a desirable form of play. In the past play was often viewed as practice for roles kids might take on as adults. Exploring in the woods; building a fort from found materials; or playing house, school, or cops and robbers are fantastic forms of play, and I encourage parents to get their younger kids to do as much of this as they can.
But modern forms of digital play also have their place. The problem is when they replace all of the other types of play because they are so captivating. They also do not require seeking out toys or a place to play. For the 70% of kids whose cell phones are always within arms reach, their favorite “toy” is available 24/7. As a result, parents need to work harder for kids to have a healthy “Play Diet” in which digital play is balanced with other forms of play. Parents, educators, and child care professionals need to find ways to help kids engaged in a variety of play experiences, because that is how they will learn the most from their play and also broaden their experiences.
Digital play has one distinct advantage over other forms of play: it lends itself to technical expertise that may be helpful in performing well in school and in preparation for 21st-century jobs. This can be similar to language immersion at a young age. Kids who master technologies as kids become more fluent in their use, and as the technologies evolve, they are able to apply them effectively in education and employment.
One of the major quandaries of 21st-century parenting is whether kids should play video games and use other screen-based media. I think the answer is clear. Yes, it’s OK, your kids should play video games. However, I’d like to reframe this dilemma. The larger issue is how to get your children to develop and embrace interests beyond screen-based media. While we are under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing more screen time is a useful tool for sheltering and safety. If you can leverage gameplay into other passions and hobbies, you will be helping your child long after the end of the quarantine.