Keeping a healthy balance: are you playing too much?
Dr Richard Graham
With mobile and tablet devices becoming ever more present in our lives, one of the greatest challenges facing us all is identifying when our use is healthy (and in the case of children, promoting development) and when it might be causing difficulties.
Dr Richard Graham draws on 10 years of working with young people and their families where game play has become out of balance, to propose a few ways for us all to keep our social game play positive.
Understand what makes social games so appealing
For children, social games along with other forms of digital entertainment can be especially attractive. Soon after birth, most babies will see their parents and siblings using tablets and smartphones, and they will want to have a go as soon as they can sit up, if not earlier. When they first start using devices, they will often start with games. To babies who are still learning to walk and move through the world without falling or causing accidents, the fact that they can so easily influence a reactive screen is incredibly exciting, which makes the devices and the games on them all them more compelling.
As they get older, others aspects of social games appeal hugely to children, and indeed adults too:
- they can play socially with friends, family and others, and not against the computer, which provides rewarding human interaction and a sense of belonging;
- some games are highly competitive, with leader boards, new levels and virtual prizes motivating gamers to play on;
- like all entertainment, social games offer an immersive escape or a break from real life which can help us feel refreshed, which then helps us to work, learn more effectively and relax;
- and with games increasingly on smartphones and tablets, they are very accessible and portable – game play can take place 24/7.
Know when enjoyment becomes a problem: is it addiction?
As with all the things we enjoy, sometimes the amount of time spent playing social games can get out of hand. In the early days of online games, the convergence of game play with social networking led to some players spending very long hours within the open worlds of some games. Even when not playing, they would be desperate to get back to the game, and as their daily hours increased, and education and even eating and sleeping took second place to gaming. When they stopped, some would become stressed or agitated, and suffer real withdrawal symptoms.
But as games have migrated to mobile devices, and with people using games to relax and de-stress as much as get an exciting buzz from the gameplay, it can be much harder to understand how much game play is going on, let alone what its impact is.
The term “addiction” no longer captures the range of gameplay that might start to cause problems for a person. So we tend to look at the impact the use of devices have, and compare that with healthy development to see if someone is struggling to stay on track. If they are struggling to keep up at school, attend work or are avoiding social situations offline, it might be a sign to cut down the game time.
Keep a healthy balance
So how do we prevent our social game play becoming not just a healthy pastime but a problem? With children, from early on it is a good idea to on keep the game time to a small amount as you would their consumption of chocolate or sugary drinks. Establish a routine of giving them notice when you want them to stop playing games e.g. 10 mins, 5 mins, and do something with them afterwards, so they don’t have time on their hands to just think of getting back to the game. In those early years try to keep their social game play as a positive treat or reward, and try not to use the device as a pacifier. Keep devices out of reach and out of sight when you don’t want them used, and make sure they don’t spy you using your phone too much – try to show them yourself how to switch off and enjoy other activities.
With adults it is not just those “power gamers”, who almost live to game, who need to keep track of how much they are playing. When social games are accessed from a smartphone, which is used throughout the day to make phone calls, check emails and messages and use an array of apps, it can be quite a challenge to resist continuing to a play game at the same time.
For all of us I would advocate quiet times or clean zones when/where devices are not to be used. A quiet time could be before bedtime, a clean zone could be the dinner table. Particularly important, especially for children, is a night-time curfew: the light from screens tricks our brains into thinking it is time to get up, and not go to sleep. So absolutely no screen activity for at least an hour before bedtime will help you sleep, and feel better for it.
For parents keen to help their children maintain a healthy balance, understanding the appeal of games and the world your child inhabits is also important. The more you know of this world, the more you can help them manage the pressures. So watch some YouTube gaming channels with your child or play them yourself and start to learn what goes on; this will be less embarrassing for them than you listening into to their gaming. It’s also good idea to keep an eye on how much time they are spending on gaming channels on YouTube or Twitch, as well as whether other team players, a Clan or Guild for example, are putting pressure on a player to always be there for certain activities – both of these aspects can be part of a picture of high games play.
Act when game play has become a problem
If you already feel that you, your child or another close friend or family member has lost control of their game play, you may need to take action. As many gamers feel very attached to their accounts and avatars, or achievements in a game, scaling back the game play may need to happen slowly. Holidays can provide an opportunity for a “digital detox”, especially if there is a chance to be active in other ways. Most gamers then learn what longs hours of gameplay do to them, and that they feel better if game play is kept within certain limits. The key issue is to try to be aware of what other children or adults are doing at that age, and consider whether you or your child’s use is unusual. For example, playing games late into the night when their friends have gone to bed or struggling at school could be an indication that the levels of gaming have become out of control. The essential test is whether they still recognise that other areas of life are important, especially when it comes to their future.