Ask the Experts

Q: Is Banning Video Games Hurting My Son Socially?

At school, the boys (and some girls) talk about video games — a lot. They even use multi-player mode to play together remotely at night and on weekends. Could your child be suffering socially because he’s not allowed to play?

Q: “My rising first grader is generally on a strict screen-time fast, because we have found that to be helpful in mitigating some of his impulsiveness and emotional outbursts. As a result, he is not allowed to play (or really exposed to) video games like Fortnite and Minecraft that are extremely popular in his schoolmates and peers. He already struggles a little bit socially, and I worry that not letting him play these games is setting him back even further because he cannot relate to his peers on this very popular subject. Am I doing him a disservice by not allowing him to participate in an activity that could theoretically help him improve his social skills or at least make friends a bit easier?” — ScreenFreeinSC

Hi ScreenFreeinSC:

Parenting in the digital age is like navigating a minefield. It’s tricky to know where to place your feet or, in this situation, hold your ground. Let me start off by saying that I wish I had some clear parental advice to give. But I don’t. Only you can make this hard parenting choice. Because only you know your child.

That said, Fortnite has a rating of “T,” which means 13+, and Minecraft is for children 7+ depending on the version.

Like most issues surrounding digital parenting, I find it is less about the suitability of individual games and more about the impact that a specific game is having on your child’s behavior. So perhaps turning it around and not saying “You can’t play because your 7,” but rather “You can’t play because, when you do, you get impulsive and very angry” might make more sense.

However, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision. He’s only 7. You have ALL the parental control at this age. Don’t relinquish it. Try testing the waters slowly at first. Here are a few ideas.

1. Set rules. Make them clear, concise, and specific. What time is he allowed to play? For how long? How will he know when his time is up? What consequences will he face if he doesn’t follow the rules? Write down the rules and post them right next to the gaming console so he is reminded of them. Every time.

2. Set limits. Give him a certain amount of time each night or each weekend. You set the boundaries of what time and for how long. I would start with small increments and proceed from there.

3. Play with him. It may seem daunting at first, but one of the best things you can do is play the game yourself. This way you see firsthand why it is so popular, what might trigger his behavior, as well as what controls and safety concerns need to be addressed.

4. Set safety guidelines. He should ONLY be allowed to play Fortnite if his friends are online as well. And he should only be in “party chat” while playing so he can communicate privately with his friends. (You can thank my son for that one!)

5. Tap into other interests. As you know, it’s all about balance. So, as best you can, find other activities for your son that promote social interaction in a fun and low-key environment. Is he athletic? Would he benefit from playing rec soccer? Or is he a theater kid who would love joining the community children’s theater? Any of these activities will give him some much needed space to work on his social skills.

And here’s some food for thought…

When my son was in middle school, Facebook was becoming popular among his peers. Back then we had a strict “no screens” rule during weekdays. My son also had a hard time socially. Specifically, he struggled being able to walk into class and seamlessly integrate himself into social conversations and discuss “current” topics with other boys. We found that allowing him to “socialize” on Facebook at night – my son was clever and funny – helped him join the conversations the next day at school. The platform allowed him time to gather his thoughts, prepare his answers, and socialize on his own terms and in his own time. In the long run, he felt more confident in his interactions and his social struggles diminished.

But that was middle school and there were controls and limits set along the way.

Good luck.

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