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MMO Family: Screening "screen time"

Lisa Poisso

MMO Family is your resource for leveling a gaming-specced family ... From tips on balancing gaming with family life to finding age-appropriate niches for every family member, MMO Family offers you advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family.

One of the first topics we tackled here at MMO Family is how to tell when kids have had enough gaming time. As parents who game, we should be in a unique position to appreciate, respect and guide our children's attraction to games. But in the crush of day-to-day living, it's all too easy to let a few extra gaming minutes slip into half an hour ... past an hour ... into the evening ... into a habit that's begun eating away at family balance.

Some families keep a rein on gaming overdoses by instituting strict limits on screen time. What's considered part of the screen time quota varies from family to family; TV time is the bottom line, with movies, internet use and gaming time lumped in or added on top according to each family's habits and needs. We talked to Dr. Kourosh Dini, author of Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents (now available completely online) and himself a gamer, for some professional perspectives on how to keep things in balance.

Today's parents are no longer clueless about games and internet usage. As experienced gamers ourselves, we know that digital technology itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad. "Parents now have at least grown up with peers who themselves played many games," Dr. Dini says. "As such, they are in a better position to realize what their kids are doing."

How then can parents go about setting firm limits? The best solution may be avoiding rigid guidelines altogether. "Much of one's success in life depends upon his or her ability to find and develop a form of play in work and relationships," Dr. Dini explains. "The question to ask instead is, what can we do to allow game play while still develop as a person and fulfill our responsibilities? These are not mutually exclusive. Responsibilities include not only chores and doing well academically, but being social with others outside and perhaps inside of game environments. Whether or not someone can do this with 15 minutes or 90 minutes of game play in a day largely depends upon the person."

Helping kids learn to manage their own time

If your child clearly has trouble structuring her own time to be able to fulfill her responsibilities (something a lot of adults can have difficulties with themselves), Dr. Dini says, then balancing gaming time with other responsibilities can actually become a good opportunity to help her learn this important life skill. Set out clear expectations for grades and social agendas, then give your child room to stretch and develop the skills she needs to manage her own time.

Keep parameters firm while staying hands-off on details. "For example, one can say they must maintain a certain GPA, spend time in some social hobby or sport of their choice, read a book outside of the school's agendas, etc., in order to play games," Dr. Dini says. "If the grades drop, then limits will be set or made more strict. If the grades return, the limits will be removed. Guidance should aim toward learning the skills needed to one day be independent."

Gaming isn't unique in being something kids should focus on in moderation. An overzealous focus on anything, even academics, can handicap the development of other skills and areas that will be needed once kids move off from the shelter of school, Dr. Dini notes.

Hard limits or flexible guidelines?

Still, isn't there some way to set a hard number? Most end up being difficult to enforce in a practical way. "Take, for example, the pediatric recommendation of a child's being 2 years old before watching any television," Dr. Dini notes. "While I think it's an excellent recommendation, what do you do when the firstborn gains a sibling? Now the first can watch, but the second cannot. Now, you are not just dealing with simple rules; you are dealing with family dynamics."

What's the right mix of "screens" in screen time for your family? Does screen time include TV, movies and DVDs, internet use for school, internet use for pleasure, texting, video games, PC games ...? Screen time limits may create more issues than they solve. "There are several issues I have with the lumping together of video games, television and the internet," Dr. Dini says. "Video games are immediately interactive and can be multiplayer; television can do neither of those. However, one can have a conversation about either television programs or games at school or otherwise. Facebook and the like are such a huge presence in the social world that it may be of great significance for a student's life to function without an online presence. Still, it is difficult to say what to do when someone has just played a game for two hours wants to watch television and catch up on some social media networking."

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