Parent’s Guide to Video Gaming

Parent’s Guide to Video Gaming

Video games are a popular form of entertainment for kids of all ages, but are particulary popular with young men and boys. A quarter of teens believe they spend too much time playing video games, while a similar share feels they spend too little time doing so.

Motivations behind video gaming vary depending on the child or teen, but research shows that video games allow youth to escape their problems, to try on different personalities, to socialize, and to engage in challenging and reward-based experiences.

What are the primary ways kids play video games?

There are many different ways to play video games, including:

  • Console gaming, such as the PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch
  • Handheld video gaming, such as the Nintendo 3DS or Nintendo Switch Lite
  • Computer gaming, played on a desktop computer or laptop, either as a downloaded game, in a web browser, or through a service like Steam
  • Mobile gaming, such as those played on a smartphone or tablet via an app
  • Virtual Reality (VR) gaming, including the HTC Vive and Meta/Oculus headsets
  • Augmented Reality (AR) gaming, which can be played on a variety of devices

Regardless of the platform, many games have an online component, in which the game is played either partially or entirely online against other players. There are a vast number of different types of video game genres (and many games fit into several categories), but a few popular genres include:

  • First-person shooters (Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Call of Duty)
  • Battle royale games (Fortnite, PUBG, Apex Legends)
  • Role-playing games (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Path of Exile)
  • Multiplayer online battle arena (Dota 2, League of Legends: Wild Rift)
  • Action-adventure (Grand Theft Auto V)
  • Social simulation games (Animal Crossing, The Sims)

How are video games rated?​

Every game has a rating set by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in North America and the Pan European Game Information (PGEI) in Europe to help parents make informed decisions when it comes to their child’s gaming. While these ratings can be helpful, it is always best to read reviews of a game, and watch your child or teen play, in order to get a better understanding of the content and if it is optimal for your child.

What do I need to know about violent video games and kids?​

Many parents wonder if violent video games can make their children or teens aggressive or violent. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, as violence is a complex issue. While research in the area of violence is ongoing, researchers have spent a lot of time studying how violent video games affect children and teens.

Evidence shows that playing violent video games has the potential to temporarily increase aggression. Parents should know that aggression can include increased angry or hostile feelings as well as reduced empathy for others (meaning that children might be less likely to help others in distress). Some children can become desensitized if they are continually exposed to violence in video games. Researchers are continuing to study how violent video games affect health and behavior.

Parents should make decisions regarding violent video games based on your child’s developmental readiness. Consider how well they talk about their feelings, calm themselves following upsetting or stressful events, and self-regulate their use of engaging media.

Can cyberbullying happen in online gaming?​

Many online games allow the player to interact with others via text or voice chat. These features are often unmoderated, and players may be exposed to threats, offensive language, or other objectionable content. Female gamers in particular are often targets of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, many children and teens think that cyberbullying and aggression, such as insulting others and arguing via text or voice chat, are a common part of online gaming culture.

Can video games be educational?​

Video games created specifically for education can help children learn in the classroom. However, just because a mobile game may be labeled as educational in an app store, doesn’t mean that it can actually help children and teens learn. Video gaming has the potential to improve functions such as visual processing and how the brain understands information, and many teens believe that playing certain games helps their problem-solving skills.

What is the connection between video games and health?​

Video games can both contribute to, and harm, the overall health and wellbeing of children and teens.

Physical Health

Video gaming before bed can contribute to a variety of sleep problems, including poor quality sleep and not enough sleep.
Research looking into the relationship between playing video games and weight gain as well as obesity has found mixed results. There is evidence that advergames can promote unhealthy eating habits, video game playing can contribute to increased calorie consumption, and younger children who play video games may have a higher BMI in their teens.
Exergames are a type of video game that require players to interact physically with the game. Exergames are available in virtual reality, mobile, computer, and console formats. Exergaming can be an enjoyable way to encourage physical activity, reduce obesity, and improve balance, agility, and speed.
Playing video games can help improve motor functioning, including spatial skills, such as knowing where objects are in relation to others, and motor skills, such as those needed for driving.

Social Health

Children can learn prosocial behaviors, such as helping, sharing, and cooperating, by playing video games that include social activity (for example, interacting with video game characters as opposed to a puzzle game). Youth can also increase their ability to cooperate, share, and maintain positive relationships with others outside of gaming.
Players who engage in multiplayer online video games experience lower loneliness and social anxiety, as these games encourage social interaction often in the form of cooperation and/or competition.

Mental Health

Children and teens who struggle with Problematic Interactive Media Use in the form of video game playing may be more likely to develop anxiety. On the other hand, research also shows that video games may help reduce anxiety in youth.
Youth who already experience depressive symptoms have a higher chance of developing Internet Gaming Disorder, while some video game playing has the potential to alleviate depression and anxiety.
Some video games offer loot boxes, which are virtual, in-game items that players can purchase with real-world money without knowing what the box contains. These virtual items could help a player level-up or change the look of their avatar. Many adolescents play games that offer loot boxes, and mobile games aimed at younger children often have loot boxes as well. Adolescents buy loot boxes for various reasons, including increasing their competitive edge in video games, gaining specific items or characters, enjoying opening the boxes, changing the appearance of their avatar, believing that loot boxes are of high value, and earning money.
Adolescents can experience more intense symptoms of ADHD when playing video games, and children who have ADHD may be more likely to develop Problematic Interactive Media Use. Specialized video games used by clinicians can also help assess and treat ADHD.

Can my child be addicted to video games?​

The idea of video game “addiction” has also become popular recently, with both the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association identifying “gaming disorder” as a behavioral health concern. If you are concerned that your child or teen may be struggling with their sleep, grades, or other health-related issues as a result of their gaming, please contact the Boston Children’s Hospital Clinic on Interactive Media and Internet Disorders (CIMAID) to explore care options by emailing cimaid@childrens.harvard.edu or calling (617) 355-9447.

Digital Wellness Tips​

To help your child use video games in a healthy way, consider the following tips:

It is easy to become involved in a game and play for hours at a time, but children benefit from a variety of activities. Agree on a certain amount of time to play games and suggest other activities they might enjoy.
Remember, the content of what your kids play is just as important as the amount of time they spend playing. When your children ask you for a new game, do your homework before you agree to purchase it. Learn about the game’s ESRB rating, read reviews, and even play the game first before you allow your kids to play. If the game isn’t appropriate for their age or doesn’t match your value system, find an alternative game.
By keeping gaming systems (including mobile devices) in family areas, you can see how, and how often, they are being used. You can also more easily keep track of time limits. Studies show that children with electronic media in their bedrooms are more likely to be overweight and have sleep problems.
Many games can be livestreamed and/or are multiplayer in nature, allowing your child to chat or share content with other players who they may not know in real life. Be sure to set up these accounts with your kids and let them know that you have their passwords should they ever need help. Discuss the importance of acting respectfully and maintaining privacy in these online environments with your teen, and consider disabling these features entirely for younger children.
Video games are fun and challenging for adults too! Parents can spend time with their kids by having a family gaming night (just make sure that the games are appropriate for everyone involved).
Help your child or teen understand that in-game purchases are costly, and set limits on whether they can or cannot make these types of purchases. Parents can also consider restricting or disabling these features.
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