Amidst the ongoing global pandemic, virtual worlds hold an understandable appeal. Yet, many parents fear that videogames pose risks of their own—that these all-too enticing digital ecosystems may interfere with children’s emotional, physical, and cognitive development. How do you know what’s appropriate for your child? And what are the warning signs that their use of videogames has become problematic? Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development convened a group of the world’s leading researchers, psychologists, former gamers and educators to discuss the latest research on this favorite adolescent pastime, and to develop these practical tips for parents.


Parameters around game play can start with reasonable time limits. Children who game more than 2 hours per day may experience adverse effects on their mental health and executive function abilities, and they may feel low motivation to engage in less stimulating tasks. The more a child games, the less they engage in health-related activities, movement, time with friends and family, creative activities, and imaginary play. When evaluating the time a child spends gaming, it is important to consider how this compares to time spent on other activities—an approach that may be particularly useful in the context of COVID-19. – Tracy Markle, MA, LPC, and Dr. Brett Kennedy of the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center

Given that we are inside and on our devices more than ever, it’s okay to relax some of your restrictions on screen use. That said, balance remains important. Work with your kids to generate lists of activities in different categories that comprise a healthy lifestyle. Categories might include exercise activities, intellectual activities, social activities, artistic/creative activities, or new life skill activities. The goal is to choose some activities from each category every day. If kids are gaming too much, chances are they’re not achieving that goal. – Edward Spector, Psychologist

Physical activity is essential to the health and well-being of kids. Children should regularly engage in outdoor activities like walking, gardening, jogging, or anything else that can be done in a safe and socially distanced way. When their kids are gaming, parents need to set time restraints, incorporate frequent breaks, and make sure that their children stretch, maintain good posture with a straight back, keep their head and neck upright, and consciously blink their eyes. – Dr. Mark Griffiths, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction

To help kids maintain balance, set clear time limits. Playing videogames right before bed is known to cause sleep disturbances in kids (and adults), so be sure all screens are off at least 30 minutes before lights out. As children get older, parents should collaborate with kids to establish boundaries, with the aim of eventually teaching children to monitor themselves. Although you will have to intercede a lot at first, the goal is to set life habits and gradually let them take over. – Marina Krcmar, PhD, Wake Forest University Department of Communication Associate Chair


Parents should keep an eye on not just the quantity of gaming, but also its quality. Pay attention to which games your kids are playing, as well as who they are playing with.  These days, for many kids, online games are one of the only ways they can spend time in joint activity with peers. Learning how to be a good friend and good sport online is sometimes only a matter of coaching, attention, and reflection. – Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, PhD, University of California, Irvine Professor of Informatics


Don’t worry if you’re feeling a bit lost as to how to engage with your children via videogames. A great first step is to simply be present. Sit with your children while they play and ask them why they like the games they like, what they enjoy about them, and what they don’t. This is a great way to get a first-hand look at the kinds of games your children are playing as well as a way to spend some quality time with them. – Dr. Rachel Kowert, PhD, Take This Research Director

Playing games together can be a fun family activity. But if you don’t want to play, that’s okay, too! As an experiment, try just sitting quietly with your child while they’re playing. Wait for them to tell you about what they’re doing, and try to avoid criticizing, questioning the activity’s value, or reminding them about other important tasks. You might be surprised at the depth of their experience and at their attitude change when they feel heard and understood. – Dr. Daria J. Kuss, Author and Nottingham Trent University Associate Professor in Psychology; Harold. S Koplewicz, MD and Dave Anderson of the Child Mind Institute


There are a wide variety of video games out there, designed for a wide range of maturity levels, and it’s important for parents to be aware of what kind of content their kids are accessing. Parents hoping to identify age-appropriate options can start by consulting a game’s rating. If your child is under the age of 13, they shouldn’t play video games rated ‘T’ for players 13 and older. If your child is under the age of 17, they shouldn’t play video games rated ‘M’ for mature players 17 and older. And if your child is under the age of 18, they shouldn’t play video games rated ‘AO’ for adults only aged 18 and older. – Brad Bushman, PhD, Ohio State University Professor of Communication

Although game ratings can be useful, parents should take these labels with a grain of salt. Rating systems are generally run and funded by media industries rather than researchers or independent watchdogs. In general, age ratings work well as a lower limit guideline for appropriateness, but many games and films rated as “appropriate” for teenagers and children are, in fact, inappropriate for them, mainly because of violent content. Look for trailers, independent reviews, and descriptions of games in order to gather as much information as possible before deciding if they’re appropriate for a particular child. – Craig A. Anderson, PhD, Author and Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of Psychology


For most children, screen time has traditionally been a restricted treat. Now, the introduction of remote learning has transformed device use into a responsibility. This transformation requires a mental shift for kids and should also entail a shift in how parents approach digital media. For kids who previously had limited screen time, “school on computer,” with its extensive screen time requirements, can be especially demanding. Guide kids and acknowledge their progress as they take more responsibility for their learning. Encourage discussions and acknowledge the challenges of their newly flipped screen time universe. – Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed.

Games still hold a lot of appeal for children, and it’s possible for parents to harness that as a motivator for homework, reading, or chores. Some families make them equivalent. For every half hour spent reading, for instance, kids get a half hour of gaming. This can help children begin to learn to budget their time, a skill they’ll need more and more as they grow. Parents should be vigilant with this technique, though, as using games as a reinforcement can make them seem even more attractive and lessen kids’ self-control. – Douglas Gentile, PhD, Iowa State University Child Psychology Professor


It’s important for parents to watch for warning signs of problematic gaming, such as mood changes, loss of sleep, diminished interest in other activities, lying about gaming, and refusal to stop playing. Negotiate with your kids on how gaming devices will be used, and then employ parental controls (such as content restriction, time limits, and locking the option to spend money in-game) to reinforce these limits. – Daniel King, PhD, MPsych, University of Adelaide Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist

One simple test for problematic behavior is to see if your child can abstain from gaming for about seven days. Take it as an opportunity to get all of the family members out of the house and do something active together. Choose something you as parents enjoy and are emotionally involved in so you can inspire your kids. – Dr. Klaus Wölfling, PhD, University of Mainz Associate Professor

It is important for parents to be mindful of the language they use when speaking to their children about video game overuse. Be cautious about saying they are ‘addicted’ to gaming or using a label such as an “addict,” as these may be received as confrontational and stigmatizing, and thus may hurt your attempts to build the type of rapport needed to influence your gamer. Instead, focus on the behavior you are experiencing and how that behavior can be adjusted for their overall health and well-being. – Cam Adair, founder of the Video Game addiction support group Game Quitters

Parents’ anxiety about games may lead them to miss some of their positive features. Most of our fears come from things we don’t understand, and games can be a wonderful and positive part of many kids’ and adults’ lives. – Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, Stetson University psychologist and videogame researcher

Remember that videogames themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. It all comes down to how we use them. Many games require self-control, problem-solving, willingness to learn, and collaboration with others. However, if you feel a game is teaching bad life lessons, ask your kids what they think and get them to consider the ethical implications of their actions, even in a virtual world. – Jay G. Hull, PhD, the Dartmouth Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Like most screen-based activities, videogames can play an important role in young people’s development, but they also require thoughtful monitoring from parents. Every child—and every game—is different. Doing your research, paying close attention, talking with your child, and participating when possible will help ensure that your children are playing the right games for them. Nothing can replace the benefits of real-life physical and social activity; but, videogames, when used mindfully, can be a positive and enriching supplement during these challenging times.