By Randolph Nogel
Wendy James says it is becoming hard to get her teenage sons to spend less time gaming. (Supplied)
Wendy James keeps a close eye on her two boys’ gaming habits.
Her home in Yarrawonga in regional Victoria sits just inside the state’s northern border with NSW.
During Victoria’s two lockdowns, her sons spent more time than usual online, playing video games.
“They certainly do spend way too much time gaming, without a doubt,” Ms James said.
“I wish they’d be out and about … with COVID and the lockdowns it’s just been way too much.”
Ms James said it was difficult to set boundaries with her teenage sons, in part due to their school’s switch to online learning.
“You want to get them off, but it’s really hard because it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got homework to do’,” she said.
Her concerns over her boys’ screen time appears to be common in many families.
A survey from Parents Together found that of 3,000 parents surveyed, 85 per cent were worried about the length of time their children spend online.
And 49 per cent of respondents said their children’s screen time exceeds six hours a day, compared with just 8 per cent before the pandemic.
New research conducted at the University of Sydney shows spending excessive amounts of time online over the course of an adolescent’s developmental years can have serious long-term effects.
Professor James Donald led a longitudinal study of almost 3,000 Australian teenagers to understand the broader impact of compulsive internet use on adolescent development.
“We tracked young people’s use of the internet and their emotional regulation skills over four years of their adolescence, and what we found was that young people’s use of the internet and particularly using it in ways that are unhealthy, predicted reductions in their ability to regulate their emotions in healthy ways,” he said.
Professor Donald’s research also found that excessive screen time could also negatively impact adolescents’ ability to set long-term goals.
“We know that regulating your emotions is a critical life skill that young people need to develop during those crucial teen years, which then sets them up for further study, for applying for jobs, getting a trade, all these really important aspects of broader life functioning.”
How much is too much gaming?
Australian health authorities recommend young people spend no more than two hours per day online.
However, many children, like year 7 Sydney student Beth Fox, often play digital games for longer periods of time while maintaining a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Year 7 student Beth Fox plays video games with her entire family as a way of spending time together. (ABC News: John Gunn)
“I feel like some people believe it’s a bad thing — like, videogames are addictive,” she said.
The World Health Organization formally recognised gaming addiction as a modern disease in 2018, designating gaming disorder as an official condition.
Marcus Carter, a gaming researcher who also teaches at the University of Sydney, said applying the gaming addiction label too readily could have negative consequences.
“If we paint all digital play with this broad brush of addiction, a lot of kids are going to miss out on some of those benefits and they’re going to be anxious about why something that they really enjoy and is positive in their lives is being called addictive and bad,” Dr Carter said.
“I don’t think there is any conclusive evidence to say video games are addictive, but the problem is if we start pathologising normal and healthy behaviours, we run the risk of making children anxious and locking away the benefits of digital games for developing cognitive, social and communication skills.”
Dr Carter interviewed children of Beth’s age, between 10 and 14, about their gaming habits and found they used the word “addictive” to describe their own play even though there was nothing unhealthy about their gaming behaviour.
While the spike in video gaming during the pandemic has raised concerns over excessive screen time, it has also highlighted the benefits of digital platforms in providing a virtual place for people to socialise during lockdown.
“We know that games are a really important space for children to develop social skills and connect with their peers,” Dr Carter said.
“In a situation like Melbourne’s lockdown where kids just have fewer opportunities for play and social interactions, digital games provide them a virtual space where they don’t need to be anxious about social distancing or wearing face masks.”
New horizons in gaming
Beth sometimes plays digital games with her whole family.
But despite her parents’ enthusiasm to join in, she said she still feels that gaming is frowned upon.
“I feel like video games are growing so fast, it’s making people scared,” she said.
The Fox family is playing more video games online since the coronavirus pandemic began. (ABC News: John Gunn)
Beth’s mother, Fiona, thinks negative perceptions of video games and their impacts on children can be a typical generational reaction to a form of new media.
“I personally feel it’s a panic with new media and technology,” Ms Fox said.
“I think people aren’t as worried about older forms of media.
“An older friend of mine actually said to me that comic books in his time were the thing that was spreading violence and tut tutted about.”
Her perspective is shared by Dr Carter, who said some parents expect their children to experience a version of childhood similar to their own.
“Kids are often a source of media panic because they represent experiences that are lost to us as adults,” he said.
However, new games like Paper Bark, which follows a wombat’s journey through the Australian outback depicted in watercolour graphics, are disrupting stereotypes about what a video game is and how the gamer engages with it.
Seven in 10 Australians are gamers and new research shows that four in 10 Australian gamers are playing more this year than last, according to YouGov data.
As video games evolve to be a greater form of media through which we communicate, Professor Donald says one of the most important things concerned parents can do is open and maintain a conversation about gaming with their children.
“From a parental point of view, really having a shared conversation where young people have a voice, where your child feels like they have a say, and you can ideally reach some kind of shared understanding,” he said.
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