Staying Connected with Your Hyper-Connected Kid

Video games are fun. I remember playing Atari’s Defender one Saturday morning while my friends gathered around and watched me flip the score, not once but twice. That was all the reward you got in those days. The score started over. Woo hoo. In my mid-twenties I loved RPGs, pouring in an embarrassing amount of hours completing Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil or Tomb Raider I, II, and III.

Yes, video games are fun, but not all games require brain study to understand their capacity for addiction. Jane Buckingham, on a 60 Minutes segment on “Echo Boomers,” calls the video game obsession “visual motor ecstasy” and suggests it has something to do with the need for immediate gratification (a common feature of Echo Boomers/Millennials).

When my oldest son was six I thought I had the whole “screen time issue” figured out. If he wanted extra video game time, no worries. We worked out any extra game time on a 1:1 ratio, sometimes a 2:1. Practice piano for 1/2 hour, then play your game for another 1/2 hour. Or, read for an hour, then 1/2 hour of game time. It had to be something good for his mind, imagination, or his development in general. I wasn’t going to be one of those parents whose kid played endless hours of video games and wanted to do little else.

Now that he is twice that age, as with so many things one experiences as a parent, I see how it is not so easy. Come to find out, decades of data show us that behavior associated with reward and punishment is not the most effective tool for motivation. In fact, it seems to take the fun out of a task and turn it from play into work. At least that’s what Daniel H. Pink’s latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, claims. I had it wrong.

Times have changed. Understatement of the century? If those repetitive, linear, two-dimensional, 4-bit computer graphic games were compelling, can you imagine entering into the video game world now? We stopped counting bits about two decades go. Now, it’s about online connectivity — the social experience of joining with bands of other gamers, or having friends join your clan. It’s become a focus on the gameplay experience itself.

Where do we find ourselves today? Games on all devices, many of which we depend on for the plurality of tasks we engage in every day. There’s no escaping.

The secret? Limiting screen time seems right. Boundaries are important. But “how much is too much” is another topic. What is crucial is to maintain the connection in the first place. Hang out with your kids more. Eat with them. Take them on walks. Support their other “real world” activities. Even try to play whatever game they love together. (No, Dad, this is not an excuse to start playing GTA V together.) Staying connected with our hardwired kids is even more complicated now with the constant and wide open access of the Internet and the insidious nature of gaming devices.

Easy or hard, start cracking the code. Otherwise, they may just prefer to play Minecraft until the world ends.