Power up: five ways to help keep kids safe when they're gaming

Concerned about online safety? Confused about how much screen time is too much? Dr. Alok Kanojia offers advice on raising a healthy gamer.

Gaming can offer incredible opportunities for kids: from fostering creativity and problem-solving skills to building social connections. However, navigating the online world comes with its own set of challenges. Dr. Alok Kanojia, a renowned psychiatrist and author of How to Raise a Healthy Gamer, shares his top tips for parents to ensure their children have a safe and enriching gaming experience.

1. Embrace open communication and collaboration

Open and honest communication is crucial for building trust and understanding your child's gaming world. Here's how:

  • Talk about games Show genuine interest in their favorite games, characters and challenges. Understanding why they enjoy specific games can provide valuable insights into their psychological needs and preferences. For example, are they drawn to the social aspects of online games, the problem-solving challenges, or the creative storytelling elements?
  • Set clear expectations Engage in discussions about the purpose of gaming and its role in their lives. Help them recognize that while gaming can be fun and enjoyable, it's also important to develop emotional intelligence and how gaming makes them feel and recognize when the game is no longer providing positive experiences. Discuss the signs that indicate when gaming might be becoming overwhelming or no longer enjoyable, such as increased frustration, irritability, or neglecting other activities. Collaborate with your child to establish boundaries and rules that promote healthy gaming habits and emotional regulation. Encourage them to take breaks when needed and explore alternative activities when gaming stops being enjoyable.
  • Establish a "gaming zone" Collaborate with your child to designate a specific space for gaming, preferably in a common area, to facilitate communication and monitor online activity. This designated area can serve as a reminder of the importance of balance and moderation in gaming, reinforcing the idea that gaming is just one aspect of their lives and not the sole focus.

2. Balance is key

Finding the right balance between gaming and other activities is essential for your child's well-being:

  • Promote healthy habits The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to less than one hour per day for children under two years old, and no more than two hours per day for ages two to five years old (AAP, 2019). For older children, tailor screen time limits based on individual needs and family dynamics. Instead of imposing strict restrictions on screen time for older children, encourage healthy habits around gaming. This fosters internal motivation and personal responsibility in your child. Discuss the importance of balance in their daily routine. Encourage them to engage in a variety of activities beyond gaming. Collaborate with your child to establish flexible guidelines for gaming time, taking into account individual needs, responsibilities, and family dynamics. This fosters a sense of ownership and co-creation of their day-to-day schedule.
  • Diversify play experiences Encourage your child to participate in a variety of enriching activities that fulfill the social, emotional, and cognitive needs they might seek to meet through gaming. This can include activities such as outdoor play, sports, hobbies, and socializing with friends in person. Balancing gaming with other pursuits helps promote a well-rounded lifestyle and reduces the risk of gaming addiction or excessive screen time.
  • Lead by example Remember, your own behavior plays a significant role in shaping your child's habits. Model healthy screen habits yourself by demonstrating the importance of a balanced lifestyle. Engage in activities beyond screens, this demonstrates the value of a diverse and fulfilling life and sets a positive example for your child.

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3. Navigate in-game purchases wisely

In-game purchases can be tempting, but it's essential to establish responsible spending habits:

  • Consider disabling in-app purchases or alternative options This is especially recommended for younger children to prevent unexpected charges and uncontrolled spending. Encourage your child to explore free-to-play games or games with limited, pre-approved spending allowances.
  • Discuss responsible spending habits Explain the value of money and the importance of budgeting. Discuss the difference between "needs" and "wants" to encourage responsible decision-making.

4. Foster positive online interactions

The online world can be an open ground for cyberbullying, but there are ways to promote positive interactions:

  • Teach online etiquette Discuss the importance of online courtesy and respect. Remind them to treat others online as they would in person, avoiding harmful or hurtful language (National Bullying Prevention Center, 2023).
  • Be involved with their presence online Check in with your child about their online experiences. Talk about online friends and potential red flags, like cyberbullying or inappropriate behavior.
  • Encourage positive social interaction Facilitate safe online interactions through platforms designed for children and parental supervision. Help them identify safe online communities and encourage positive social interactions.

5. Understand their digital footprint

In today's digital world, it's crucial to understand the concept of a digital footprint – the trail of data you leave when using the internet – and teach responsible online behavior:

  • Discuss digital responsibility Teach your child about the concept of a digital footprint and the permanence of online posts. Encourage them to think before they post and avoid sharing personal information.
  • Be mindful of online privacy Adjust privacy settings on gaming platforms and social media accounts to restrict access to strangers and limit the exposure of private information.
  • Promote critical thinking Guide your child to critically evaluate online content, questioning the source and validity of information before sharing it further.

Bonus tip: embrace the learning opportunity

  • Play with your child Spend time gaming together. This allows you to understand the game environment, observe their online interactions, and guide them through challenges in a positive way.
  • Seek external resources If you have concerns about your child's gaming habits, seek professional guidance from mental health professionals experienced with gamers.

By implementing these tips, parents can equip their children with the knowledge and skills to navigate the online world safely and responsibly, allowing them to reap the benefits of a healthy gaming experience. Remember, open communication, setting clear boundaries, and leading by example are crucial in fostering a safe and enriching gaming environment for your children.

How to Raise a Healthy Gamer

by Dr Alok Kanojia

Book cover for How to Raise a Healthy Gamer

How much should I let them play? How do I get them to be interested in anything else?! Video games and managing screen time are a modern parenting problem with no blueprint and a rapidly changing landscape. Here, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and former gaming addict Dr Alok Kanojia offers a proven and tested eight-week, step-by-step program to help parents define, set and reinforce healthy boundaries around screens and video games.

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