You Have the Power

You've got the power!

In her May 1st segment "Are Video Games Ruining Your Life?", Katie Couric blew it. She reduced the complicated issues of parenting, psychology, and violence in media to a bumpersticker-slogan solution.

We've had this conversation more than once over the years. So rather than reflexively taking her out behind the rhetorical woodshed, we took some time to gather up our facts. Hopefully, as a parenting veteran and [according to my editor] "expert in parenting in a gaming household," I can bring up a couple points from my experiences, and, most importantly, point out some tools and resources people can use to decide how they want their household to run.

People are not robots. As much as we would all like the sort of simple, universal controls that robots promise, there is rarely a universal answer that we can apply to a given problem across all of human existence. The simplistic "garbage in, garbage out" model breaks down immediately when applied to actual human beings. Countless people raised in underprivileged environments have created satisfying, successful lives for themselves. Meanwhile, plenty of the privileged have squandered every advantage given them.

It's not a simple matter of counting the number of blood-splatters a child was exposed to before they were measurably damaged and calculating risk. It's not a matter of evaluating ”good” exposure versus “evil”; puppies and kitties cannot be weighed against virtual trigger-pulls and fantastical sword swings to reach some sort of empirical magic number for safe media consumption. Each child interprets and contextualizes media input in his or her own way.

I don't understand why Couric chose the case of Daniel Petric, the boy who shot his parents, as an example of anything she was trying to espouse in this segment. The laundry list of other problems in Petric’s life is long and heart-breaking. She pays these myriad problems little lip service, instead placing the blame on video games. However, the evidence and expert testimony presented in the court case clearly demonstrate that video games were not the root cause of Petric’s psychological issues.

This isn't the first time that demonizing video games has failed miserably as a defense tactic. It didn't work for Devin Moore, even with the strident antics of a certain Florida-based ex-lawyer doing his level best to drive the false connection between gaming and violence through the media and the courts. It's not a concept unique to video games, either. The Beatles are not considered responsible for Charles Manson's behavior, no matter how many times Manson listened to "Helter Skelter" — backwards or forwards. Nor is Jodie Foster to blame for John Hinkley, Jr.’s attempt to get her attention by shooting Ronald Reagan. Petric is facing the consequences of his actions, just as these others who have tried this defense are.

Without an underlying problem of some sort, it doesn't matter on a practical level what influences a person, because a healthy, well-adjusted person has the skills to integrate any influence into the rest of their life's context, and the only practical effect is enrichment brought on by either the good or bad experience. The process of learning how to manage the balance between "have to" and "want to" is part of growing up. However, in cases where negative influences skew the perceptions of a child who has no support system to properly lend context, the results are unpredictable. Both of the boys Couric used as examples in this segment had documented mental health issues. Additionally, their families failed to give them the tools and support to manage proper context with reality.

That said, even perfect families and the best of care sometimes aren’t enough to stop a tragedy. We have to be careful here. Blindly blaming parents is just as bad as blaming video games. Parents are, at best, the littlest fairies at the christening. Now, I'm not in any way suggesting I know the one true way to parent; my adventures raising my kids (particularly my younger son) through their teenage years included plenty of hair-raising (and hair-graying!) moments, some that we still can only laugh nervously about before we quickly change the subject.

But that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card for parents. I hear about the way these kids played video games for days on end and it baffles me. I assure you my kids have never played ANYTHING for even one day straight. Heck, I wouldn't let them read or study 24 hours straight, even though some people would consider that good for them. As Tycho from Penny Arcade put it, "I try to imagine a scenario where my son would play video games unsupervised for three solid days that didn’t culminate in my removing his door." That people can look at a situation where a kid is in a room by him- or herself doing any activity for days on end and blame a game for the resulting tragedy simply does not compute for me.

But what do we do!?

The worst part of the whole thing was the sense of helplessness she left the viewers with. Parents have the power to do a great deal of good, and there are plenty of tools and constructive guidance out there.

I'm not an "expert" — except in the sense that I raised four kids (one of whom is "special needs") to independent adulthood, and I'm a gamer. I have been playing games since before they needed power to run. I grew up playing games. My ex-husband played games. Our friends of both genders played games. I started out with pen-and-paper games in 1980 with three of my best friends. When computers came along, they simply joined my repertoire. And when the children arrived, I realized pretty quick they were going to want to play too, and that we needed to think that one through.

From that experience I can say definitively that vague generalities, formless fears, and burying your head in the sand like Couric promulgates are not ways for you or the child to make it through this whole thing sane. Let me share a few things I've found:

  • Openness helps manage a host of ills. My own solution to them sneaking onto the computers when they should be doing something else started out with not having any game systems in the bedrooms. All the game systems and computers were out in the middle of the house, visible from the couch and the kitchen. That included my computers — not only in a "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" sort of sense, but with it set up that way I could be involved in what was going on in the house while I was working, and they could see me modelling good media-management skills. I'm not saying every family can do that, but that's how my family worked and I can vouch for the way it helped us negotiate the pitfalls of this internet age.
  • Whatever is available has to be under your control. Having it out in the middle of the house is one step, but technology is where the real win comes in here. You don't have to be an electrical engineer to make it work, either. Every modern console from the Xbox and PS2 on up has a set of features built in called Parental Controls, which can allow you to limit certain functions of the device to match your household rules. They're not all the same, but they are there. If you learn to use them, the game system itself becomes your ally in enforcing your household limitations.

    The APA has also suggested using technology to limit content.

    "V-chip technology, which gives parents a way to control what the TV will allow to be broadcast in the home, is a step in the right direction, according to the authors, "but only if a content-based rating system is used that would actually allow parents to make judgements on the basis of violent content instead of the age guideline rating system used for many programs."(full text here)

    And that was back in 2003. There are quite a few new and better tools available to parents now. In the Resources section below you'll find some overall information and links to instructions on how to use them all, or feel free to ask here in the comments for help.

  • Some parents don't think they can impose limits because the child owns the hardware. Well, the parent owns the internet connection and the electricity, if nothing else. Start with that if it helps you get your arms around how to manage this stuff in your house. I solved the "it's MINE!" argument on several levels by the simple expedient of owning all the hardware in the house. I wouldn't have the kids buying a toaster for the household, so why would they be buying the entertainment hardware for the living room? When they got to a certain age they were free to buy their own (and their own internet if they wanted to do something I didn't approve of on it). None of them ever did, because they all figured out very young that it was far more allowance-cost-efficient to just invest in the games they wanted within the content limitations that were in place and use my hardware. Now that they're grown, they still come over to my house to play.
  • Moderation is key to any pursuit. My mother, frantically trying to crochet her stress out while dealing with her cancer, needs to manage her yarn consumption and the effect using the hooks that long has on her arthritis. My grown and married younger daughter and I had to manage jobs and households while powering through over 60 hours of Studio Ghibli's Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch together when it came out. Despite the way the game engrossed us, neither one of us shorted our jobs or families (though I will admit it helped that her husband enjoys cooking).
  • I'm not a proponent of the no-screen-time APA guidelines, but you do need structure. I had very strict rules about media consumption, both in terms of content and duration. Our baseline was half an hour at a time, and following the age recommendation of the applicable ratings organization for all media. I would grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis, after I'd watched/played the content myself. The kids progressed through hard-coded levels where the rules were designed to expand to reflect how they grew and changed over the course of their childhood and teen years.
  • By far the most important part is to communicate with your children. Pay attention to what they do. Play with them. Talk to them. Listen to them when they speak. Even the APA admits that the bad things they see with media consumption can be overcome by the parents watching and playing along with the child.
    ""The study suggests a number of steps parents and society can take to prevent or reduce this effect. Research has shown that parental co-viewing of and commenting on the programs seems to reduce the effects of TV violence on children, probably because it reduces the child's identification with the person committing the violent act, reduces the child's perception that the violence is real and reduces the likelihood that the child will act out the violent act in fantasy or play immediately after seeing it on TV." (full text here)

    Again, this is not new information. They started publishing this in 2003. It is amazing how the pundits and other supposed authorities love to quote the dangers of media using the very document I got these quotes out of, but somehow never manage to see or comment on these parts right on the front page.

That all seems simple, but it takes a lifetime to carry out, and we still have new adventures with it every day. I can't describe all of that in this small space. I have shelves full of books describing how to pretend to live a life. Imagine how many more words it would take to describe an actual one?

Resources

How to use/setup the parental controls for:
Xbox360
PS3
Wii
WiiU
3DS

GWJ articles:
Rabbit: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/113659
Momgamer: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/48914

Other Resources:
American Academy of Pediatrics parenting info for Children & Media
ESRB
PEGI
GamingWithChildren
Common Sense Media
MPAA
TV Guidelines

I want to add a giant thank you to kcander and Wordsmythe for their help in putting this together. - Momgamer

Comments

Colleen, I am a die hard PC game enthusiast, full-time employee, husband to a full-time working wife, a semi-exhausted father of twins, and someone who used to work in media (ok radio, but nobody's perfect). I can tell you with a moderate amount of experience as someone who is involved on creating and listening to those stories that it all comes down to ratings. Stating a balanced case for any topic (possible exception - medical advice), weighing the pluses and minuses, never gets eyes and ears. There is a reason extreme opinions always appear in media, because it works. And video games are such an easy target for the Katie Courics of the world.

In today's near-fanatical media environment-where only the most outrageous stories get any attention due to the deluge of news hitting us 24 hours from countless sources and platforms-the only other story that could have occurred is "how video games are good for your kids" or "why you need to let your kids play more video games", but that would be very unlikely to happen. Making a scare piece that is going to make you pay attention is all that matters. The producers of these shows don't care whether you (i) watch because you agree with the premise of the story and are outraged, or (ii) watch and completely disagree and are outraged. All they care about it that you (iii) watch.

I know you get all of this and I applaud your balanced approach and great advice in your piece above, but it's really hard for me to get that upset anymore by our extremist media. I simply expect nothing more than the worst possible standards from them, and I know I'm not alone in this.

Thanks for the post, Colleen. You write down some things that my wife and I are already starting with our 5-year-old, iDevice-and-xbox-loving youngster. Glad to see that others have succeeded with the philosophy we've started.

Does anyone mind if I go off-topic slightly? One thing I idle wonder is not so much the detrimental effects of the games due to desensitization, but rather the aesthetic progression. See, when I was young, only very simple games existed. They were fun, but got boring at a pace that encouraged reading and playing and building Lego spaceships. My mind was more fun than the games. As the games improved, they opened up new vistas, and I appreciated each advance as coming closer to my internal ideals.

But now, I'm worried that my child will get too drawn to the games; they will actually fulfill his immediate imaginative needs. I'm worried that if I let him eat potato chips, he'll never want to try good food. I know that at some level this is old-man-get-off-my-lawn stuff, but I'm curious how either young people or people with older kids feel.

Nathaniel,

I am Father of 3, 14 yr old boy, 11 yr old boy and a 9 yr old girl. They all play video games, all have grown up with lots and lots of legos. My 9 yr old boy is the most creative. He still loves plying with the legos and will get the other two to join in but he also gravitates towards the creative video games. His current passion along with my daughters is minecraft. I think there is room for this as a creative outlet but limiting the total ammount of screentime is key in my case. If you limit the screentime then it forces them to make choices on how they use it, what to use it for (TV, XBOX, PC, etc). By limiting their screentime they have additional hours to fill in the day with other creative outlets through free play.Their ammount of time should also be appropriate to their age. Younger kids should have much less time staring at a screen than the older kids. Those formitive years are very important for setting the tone of their later years and you don't want that formation based on what's gotten from a screen. I also think requiring the kids to read (or be read to) for 30 minutes before bed time every night since they were a babies has done worlds of good for their creativity, ability to concentrate and ability to sleep as they have that wind down at the end of each day.

Come find me on the GWJ TF2 server. The other GWJers and I have a good time there.

As a budding mother myself, I definitely read this article with great interest. In the end, I can only nod emphatically, because a lot of things (moderation, no game systems in the bedrooms, remaining involved in your child's activities) seem like common sense to me. Simply because that's how I was raised. Growing up with video games, we were always being asked to limit our gaming time, and homework and chores always came first.
My main concern is what you outlined in your eighth paragraph: sometimes you do the best of you can and things still don't quite turn out the way you'd hoped.

Nathaniel, I'm not worried about gaming hampering imagination. Everyone's talking about kids playing Minecraft and how the "blank slate" premise allows them to build their own worlds and weave their own stories. I'm not sure I see the difference between reading a story to your child and a video game (say an adventure game, like King's Quest). In both instances, you are being told what's going on. If anything, there's a bit more player agency in King's Quest than Charlotte's Web. That's not to diminish the importance of reading, of course, but simply to suggest the old "all things in moderation" adage. There's no way [/i]I'd let my son play anything for more than a couple of hours.

Anyhow, thanks for this great piece of writing, Colleen, I'll check back in twenty something years and tell you guys how it went.

What about the children!

I feel like Colleen, Julian, Sean and some others should should get together and write the "Gamers With Jobs Parenting Guide for Raising Young Nerds."

MrDeVil909 wrote:

I feel like Colleen, Julian, Sean and some others should should get together and write the "Gamers With Jobs Parenting Guide for Raising Young Nerds."

They should make it a video. Much easier to get people to watch something than to read.

Oddly enough, what I've found with my niece during her development was that the media that she was consuming rarely mattered outside of her play time. If she was watching a lot of Horseland or some such, then she'd be doing a lot of games with horses. Watching a lot of Disney Princesses, and she'd be playing with her Disney Princess toys. Yet no matter how often my sister watched Bones in front of her, or Supernatural, or Buffy, my niece never played murder-solver or vampire slayer.

What has influenced her behavior, however, were how the various adults treated each other and how they treated her. I think when people "blame the parents", it's still done with narrow vision. Kids aren't only paying attention to the television, and they're not only paying attention to how you treat them. They're watching how you and your spouse/significant other speak to each other, how you speak with their aunts, uncles, grandparents, how you speak to their neighbors, and how you speak about other people.

One of the most surprising things was how my niece told my brother about how a kid at school was annoying her, but she didn't want to tell her mom (my sister) because she didn't want my sister to go down to the school and raise Hell (paraphrasing).

Equating parenting with a job is really not enough. Even if you have a job where you're on-call, you have time away from it. Time where yous top being that job. There's never a time you're not a parent once you have a kid.

Lastly: every time I look at this article title I think of this.

ccesarano wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:

I feel like Colleen, Julian, Sean and some others should should get together and write the "Gamers With Jobs Parenting Guide for Raising Young Nerds."

They should make it a video. Much easier to get people to watch something than to read.

Or a podcast....

MrDeVil909 wrote:

I feel like Colleen, Julian, Sean and some others should should get together and write the "Gamers With Jobs Parenting Guide for Raising Young Nerds."

I can see it now, the first in a series of GWJ life guides.

wordsmythe wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:

I feel like Colleen, Julian, Sean and some others should should get together and write the "Gamers With Jobs Parenting Guide for Raising Young Nerds."

I can see it now, the first in a series of GWJ life guides.

Exactly. I'd buy them.

And no all you other nerds. It's got to be a book so it can go on the shelf in the book store where non-nerd parents can find it. :p

*edit*

In all seriousness. This is advice that parents who don't have nerdy backgrounds really do need, and you're far more likely to reach them in book form.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

I was an example of a kid who was given too much freedom during a period when video games were becoming abundant. I barely played video games as a young child. My earliest memories were of Pitall! and BurgerTime, but it would be a further decade before I began giving the medium my full attention.

The first television in my room was a ten inch black and white television I got for free. It was terrible for playing games on, but it worked in a pinch. When I was a teenager I got a proper television, 27 inches and as deep as it was wide. My parents didn't take an active role in monitoring my activities (some of which were more negative than playing video games, which is beyond the scope of this topic), so I gradually played more and more video games as I got older. I had friends and played sports and sometimes didn't get home until dinner, so my gaming stretched into the night to compensate. By late high school I had a sleeping problem. I'd only get a few hours of sleep a night; I'd fall asleep in class. It became a joke with many of my classmates. Despite that, I did well in school so long as assignments or excessive studying weren't a requirement. Playing RPGs and platformers and light gun games took priority over my responsibilities.

I grew up eventually and learned how to better moderate myself, but video games are still a notable part of my life. When my wife and I decided to have kids, we had to figure out how to not repeat the mistakes of my childhood, even though my own gaming habits would be on display. I have a large collection of games spanning over thirty consoles; With all those games at my children's disposal, how do we keep them from being overwhelmed by them? The answer thus far has been pretty simple: Don't give them the option.

Getting the television out of the bedroom is absolutely the first step. Excessive television watching (irrespective of video games) has been linked to obesity, lack of sleep, and poor study habits. There's simply no good excuse to put a television in the bedroom. (That goes for adults too!)

Moderation is the next big step. When my kids were about four, I decided to limit access to television solely to the weekend. The key to this strategy was to keep them busy through the week so that television and video games were never missed. Sports, music, homework, reading, playdates; with the amount of sleep kids need anyway, television isn't needed to fill the hours.

That even said, limiting access to television and video games is about health, not about preventing psychotic behavior. Parents need to talk to their kids. I've never followed rating systems too heavily because I know my children, I know what they're mature enough to handle, and I talk about everything they play or watch. The minds of children aren't always as fragile as some people think. Children can handle a lot of mature concepts, but they need to understand the reality behind the concept, understand the dangers, the ramifications, and understand the difference between reality and fiction.

krux wrote:

Parents need to talk to their kids. I've never followed rating systems too heavily because I know my children, I know what they're mature enough to handle, and I talk about everything they play or watch.

There's the two-pronged key. Know your kids, and know the content.

Absolutely outstanding article Colleen!

Whether all the advice should be followed: well, kids grow up regardless of amount of activities spent doing whatever, so long as parents are smart about it or the kid has another good family-like structure available. What I'm getting to is that kids will probably still be fine even if far too much of their time is spent gaming or some other activity.

I spent my childhood either reading or gaming or out in the woods. So long as my grades were near perfect and I was taking the hardest classes, my parents didn't concern themselves with my activities, so I was definitely a screen person. Or at least I think so now, doubting it, considering the number of books I read at the time. Maybe my perspective would be different had I really just gamed after school instead of doing extracurriculars and reading and other things as well? But looking back, my one regret is having watched way too many pointless sitcoms instead of doing more gaming or reading or musical-instrument practice.

Don't worry so much about creativity. Not everyone has it. Mine is very limited. The kids who have no interest in Minecraft or Legos or painting will probably be good at something else, and that skill will serve them well in school and professional life in some other way.