Should You Get Your Kids (More) Video Games for Christmas?

Kids often want video games or a console for Christmas.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

 Jessica Lewis/Pexels
Source: Jessica Lewis/Pexels

Christmas is around the corner and, if you haven't finished your holiday shopping for the kids, now is the time to get that done! That stress of finding gifts a few days before Christmas should be avoided at all costs. Believe me, because I've learned that lesson at least a dozen times.

If you have kids, particularly boys, video games are often at or near the top of their wish list. If you are like me and my wife, you probably have mixed feelings about supporting, indulging, or encouraging their gaming. My wife and I have three boys (ages 7, 12, and 15), so we are in the thick of it. As a psychologist who has worked with kids, teens, and families for over 20 years and the author of a book on this topic, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World, I can say that there are no easy answers to this dilemma. However, I'm going to offer a few tips that might help.

Is Playing Video Games Bad for Kids?

First, you might have some hesitations about getting video games or a console for kids because they might be "bad" for kids. Are they? The short answer to this question is "no." Video games can be an enjoyable pastime for kids and adults, and there is no evidence that video games are inherently harmful to kids. In fact, there is research indicating that video games can offer many cognitive benefits to players.

Now, there is still some debate about the effects of video game violence on kids. However, in general, kids and adults will not become more violent from being exposed to the typical violence found in video games. A great book on this subject is Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong by Dr. Patrick Markey and Dr. Christopher Ferguson. This isn't to say that it's just fine for 5-year-olds to play M-rated video games (those rated as only appropriate for people 17 years and older) such as Call of Duty Black Ops 4 or Red Dead Redemption 2. Just as we wouldn't let our little youngsters watch pornography or slasher movies, we don't want our young kids exposed to content that is inappropriate for their developmental level. It's, of course, unethical to conduct such studies, but let's agree that it's best to err on the side of caution here. 

My greater concern with video games is the amount of time kids playing them, and the related struggles that result from trying to set reasonable limits. I cover this is my previous blog, Is Fortnite Ruining Your Kid? For the most part, kids aren't really going to experience any noteworthy harm from playing an hour or two of video games per day. Many (most?) can probably play much more than this without any observable ill-effects. They are even going to be just fine if they occasionally "binge" and play 5-6 hours at a time (or more) on weekends and holidays. The amount of time does become problematic for a percentage of kids who are playing so many hours that they are significantly neglecting sleep, schoolwork, physical activity, and in-person social interactions. That's what we need to be most concerned about as parents

Tips on Buying a Video Games and Consoles

  • To get a gaming console or not? If your child isn't clamoring for a gaming console because he or she enjoys games on the computer or tablet/smartphone or just doesn't find video games that appealing (a rarity, but it happens), it's probably best to hold off on getting one. The newer gaming consoles cost between $300-$400, so it's a big purchasing decision. If you have a partner, you should both be on the same page with the decision to buy a gaming console. You need to feel okay with the idea that your child will probably want to spend a sizable portion of their leisure time playing video games if you do decide to get a console.

  • What age is appropriate for a console? For most younger kids, tablet/smartphone games are just fine. It's difficult for younger kids to work the controller and complexities of some of the console games. So, I'd recommend holding off on a gaming console until your child is around 6 or 7 years of age. My 7-year-old doesn't really like playing our Xbox One S because both the games and controls are a bit complicated for him to work. Plus, some younger kids have a hard time with emotional regulation when it comes to putting down the controller. Getting a gaming console can be a bit like opening Pandora's Box. We want our younger kids to get used to enjoying a plethora of off-screen activities before they sink their teeth into console gaming. In effect, we want them to internalize the enjoyable experiences that can be derived from off-screen activities. Such experiences can be sort of a "home base." 

  • Which console? The main gaming consoles right now are the Nintendo Switch, Microsoft's Xbox One X (the more powerful, expensive version) or Xbox One S (less powerful, less expensive), Sony PlayStation 4 Pro (more powerful, more expensive) or Sony PlayStation 4 (less powerful, less expensive). For younger kids, maybe ages 6-10, I'd recommend the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo tends to have a higher number of kid- and family-friendly games. The Nintendo Switch, as you might already know, is both console system (i.e., can hook up to the TV) and a portable system. Of course, being portable has its pluses and minuses. Most parents like the idea that the Xbox and PlayStation can be left at the house when it's time to leave. If you have multiple kids, with at least one of them being less than 10, I'd again recommend the Nintendo Switch. My wife and I got the Xbox One S last Christmas for our kids and now, in retrospect, I wish that we had gotten the Nintendo Switch. Ah well! For older kids, choosing an Xbox One or a PlayStation is a bit of a coin toss. Probably the biggest factor to help determine which is "best" for them is which console most of their friends have. Your child can have more shared gaming experiences with their friends if they have the same console. 

  • Discuss "terms of use" with your child. This topic could be its own blog but, in brief, we want to go over some "do's and don'ts" that go with access to their game console. Ideally, we get some input from our kids so it is not all a "top-down" approach. This is especially true when our kids are older as they need to develop the skill of self-regulation. Within these conversations, we should go over expectations and the consequences of misuse. We should avoid lengthy contracts or going into granular detail as this can be overwhelming. (Ever read a Terms of Use agreement for iTunes? I haven't either.) Some of the biggest areas to discuss include when they can play, how much time they have, and how to end game play when their time is up (e.g., "I'm about to get to the boss in this level! I just need a few more minutes!").

  • Choose games that are developmentally appropriate. I keep running into this challenge because my younger kids are drawn to games (and movies) that aren't always appropriate for their age/developmental level. In general, try to use the Entertainment Software Rating Board's ratings. Common Sense Media also has some great tools and tips for selecting fun, appropriate games for your kids. You can also preview games to determine their appropriateness by observing gameplay on YouTube. 

  • Watch them play (or play with them!). Video games provide rich and diverse experiences for players of all ages. It's fun to watch our kids play these games, and this allows us to "enter their world." We can have wonderful conversations about what they are doing in the game, what their goals are, what problems they have solved, what they like/dislike about the game, what do they think would make the game even better, etc. Often, we can play these games with our kids which can be quite fun. Also, it allows them to be in a teacher's role, which can be quite empowering. One of my favorite little "strategies" is to ask my middle son to "think out loud" while he is playing a game when he is being watched by his little brother. That way, my youngest son can benefit from the sophisticated thinking of his older brother and my middle son can practice his verbal and teaching skills. 
  • Steer them toward some slow-paced strategy or thinking games. Video games don't cause Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, I am concerned that a constant diet of high-paced action games (as found in most first-person shooters) might make off-screen, slow-paced activities such as reading, playing board games, and sitting in class pale in comparison. In a manner similar to how we've grown so accustomed to eating foods with high levels of salt, sugar, and fat such that healthier options aren't as appealing, it's possible that a similar process is occurring with video games. As kids become too accustomed to the high levels of stimulation provided by many video games, real-life activities might seem bland and boring by comparison. It's not that we should totally restrict our kids from high-action games, but I recommend mixing in some slow (or slower) paced games. Two of my kids' favorites that are a bit slower (or have lots of slower parts) include Terraria and Starbound
  • Get some board/card games as well! Even if you do decide to get a gaming console or video games for your child for Christmas, be sure to get some board/card games as well. There are SO many wonderful options out there. Some of our current family favorites include Exploding Kittens, We Didn't Playtest This at All, Fluxx, and Pandemic.

The Takeaway?

A video game console/video games can make great Christmas gifts. For the most part, the pros will outweigh the cons. However, there is a bit of a "Pandora's Box" element to them, so be sure to think carefully about a purchase decision, especially if buying your first console. If you have a partner, it's important to have some thoughtful discussions about this ahead of time to ensure that you are both on the same page.

It's great to spend time playing video games with our kids as they can be a bonding experience and great fun for the whole family. However, we need to be sure to balance screen time with other enjoyable off-screen games and activities. This means we need to unplug from our devices!

It's critical that we ensure that our kids get to experience many fun, off-screen activities, like board and card games. When our kids sink their teeth into the fun that can be experienced with these off-screen games, they will internalize the reality that some of the best fun we can ever have can be with each other in person. Once they have built up enough of those real-world experiences, they will be drawn back to them. Ultimately, we want them to realize that video games are just one of many activities that they can enjoy in life.