Game boys (and girls)

Are the kids in your home blowing through your family’s screen limits? During these exceptional times, the experts say it’s probably OK


The rule in the Shaw-Riemer household used to be no screens from Monday to Thursday. But on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, games and screen time were allowed, with a limit of two hours. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We tried at the beginning to keep up with the time limits,” says Ramine Shaw, mother of Rowan Riemer, Per Riemer and Soren Riemer. “But those limits got pushed regularly and we really struggled with maintaining them.” They finally had a family conference and realized that things had to change. “Our rules just didn’t fit anymore,” says Shaw. “And with schooling going online, we had to let the boys have screens in their rooms to do schoolwork.”

Like so many other parents, Shaw realized that the only socializing her sons were doing was online. “We realized that putting restrictions in place was making their mental health worse, but there has to be a balance too.”

Donna Zimonjic would agree. “Our son Jakob stays in touch with his friends through games and texting. It really is his only way to socialize with his friends.” She says that often, Jakob, 13, and his friends simply watch other kids playing video games online. “I know that is confusing for parents, but it’s what they do,” says Zimonjic. “I guess in a way it’s like watching a sporting event.” Kate Martin-Charland is both a mom and a teacher. “I really see the downside of too much screen time,” says Martin-Charland, “and it can be a real fight to get kids, especially teens outside for some fresh air. But these games and screen time is their only friend connection right now.” She says her older daughter, Emma, uses things like Facetime to keep up with friends and chat online. “Emma would much prefer to go out for a physically-distanced walk with friends,” says Martin-Charland. “I think older kids might be better able to manage their time.”  As a teacher, she can see the value of video games—especially when they are educational video games that deal with math or languages. “These types of games are gimmicky and entertaining and keep kids’ interest,” says Martin-Charland. “So combined with other teaching methods, they can be a valuable way to learn.”

So what do the kids think? Rowan Riemer, age 16, says there are pros and cons of spending so much time online and playing games. “One of the big cons is the fact that your games are on your computer and it can be difficult to concentrate,” says Riemer. “On the other hand, right now it’s the only way we can connect and interact with our friends or with other people from around the world we meet on games.” He’s also aware that there is such a thing as too much. “I kind of realized that I was on my phone sometimes in the middle of the night. That wasn’t a good thing,” he says. “I think you need some rules, but ones that make sense.”

Younger brother Per, age 15, preferred going out to meet friends. But now with restrictions in place, he connects with friends online and onscreen. “I’d prefer to be outside,” he says, “but thankfully I can still communicate with friends in chats and play games.” He also thinks that once this pandemic is over, he and many of his friends won’t rely on games or screens to keep in touch. Youngest brother, Soren, age nine, did a project on the good and bad aspects of video games. “Playing online too much affects your social life and going outside,” says Soren. “On the good side, you get better at hand-eye coordination, you use your imagination, and you can make friends.” He says he also learns strategies from online sports videos. “I’d way rather be outside with my friends,” says Soren, “but at least I can stay connected playing games.” Angus Charland says there’s always something to do online. “I know it’s a lot of time spent in front of a screen, including school,” says Charland, age 15, “but it’s a great way to stay in touch with friends and play games. And I use my phone for calls too.” As a swimmer, he also tries to stay in shape. “It’s really tough right now for anyone who competes and is trying to stay in good physical shape,” he says. “So without pool time, I try my best by jogging with my Dad or taking the dog for a walk, but it’s not the same.” And there’s no video game that replicates physical activity.

As far as Rachel Kowert, Ph. D and research psychologist is concerned, video games and screen time saved teens this year. “There are lots of positives about video games,” says Kowert, who has published and spoken on many topics related to video games, including the impact on physical, social, and psychological well-being. Her recent book, ‘A Parent’s Guide to Video Games’ won an INDIES award in the science category. “They’re playful, social, creative and for so many teens, especially this past year, it’s the best they could be doing.” Can there be problems? Yes. But Kowert thinks most teens know when it’s been too much. “When video games start to interfere with daily functions,” says Kowert, “like not getting homework done, or staying in your room all day to play, and having no family interaction, then it’s time to have a chat.” She says the best way to create a bond is to play with them.

“By playing their game, you not only get to see what is going, they get to teach you something,” she says. “And especially for younger kids, they’ll take pride in showing Mom the ropes of the game.” Kowert says for teens, the role playing in games amongst peers is important for them—this year perhaps even more so. Were video and online games the saving grace of COVID? “Well,” says Kowert, “they certainly kept kids and teens entertained. When you can’t even play basketball outside, you can play it online.” As The Who sang in 1966, ‘The Kids are Alright.’