Why I've Stopped Setting Limits With Video Games

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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My boys are 5 and 11. Their time together can be summed up like this: either they are fighting, punching, roughhousing, and just generally getting on each other’s last nerve, or they are laughing and playing so nicely it makes my heart burst with happiness. There is very little in between. Love or hate – that’s it.

Lately, some of their best times together happen while playing video games. They got a Nintendo Switch for the holidays, and it turns out there are a ton of games they both like to play. My 11-year-old has been really into video games for many years, and it’s only recently that his little brother can play along. (And yes, we are strict about limiting them to age-appropriate, kid-friendly games.)

So the big kid is having a grand old time introducing the little kid to all the games he loves. And they love discovering new games together too. Yes, sometimes it evolves into a screaming, kicking, “no, it was my turn” match, but usually things go really well. While they play, they are learning, laughing, and bonding.

Their excitement is palpable, and they can stay occupied in front of their game console for hours. Without interrupting me. It’s a beautiful thing.

The problem is, even if they are having fun and bonding and all that, it’s screen time, which we parents are—rightly—supposed to be cognizant of. It’s a different world than when we grew up, and screens are everywhere. Kids read books on screens, do their homework on them, and use them for all kinds of entertainment.

It makes sense to limit their screen time, especially because it can definitely become addictive, and prevent them from play and outside activity, which God knows our kids do not get enough of.

My boys definitely are allowed their fair share of screen time. I let them zone out on screens in the morning before school, a little after school, and a little before bed. But there are also very strict no-screen times in our house, which I think are important for them.

Still, as I’ve watched my boys play video games together these past few months, I’m wondering how strict my screen time rules should be when it comes to the times that they are happily playing video games together.

I recently read an enlightening book about screen time called The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, which I previously wrote about for Scary Mommy. In the book, the author, Anya Kamenetz argues that screen time – when practiced in moderation and with mindfulness – can actually be an awesome thing for our kids.

But screen time is best when it is a less solitary, more interactive experience. Kamenetz’s motto for screen time is: “Enjoy Screens! Not too much. Mostly together,” and I have thought about that a lot over the past few months as I’ve watched my sons’ relationship blossom via screen time.

It seems to me that there is a difference between the times that my boys are totally zoned out on their iPads or the TV, just kind of relaxing and numbing out. As much as I think that can be fine in moderation, I do start to worry when my kids seem to be turning into screen-zombies. We’ve all been there when it looks like our kids’ eyes are glossing over and it’s going to be a serious fight to unglue them from those screens.

But times when my boys are playing video games together are different. They are active, alert, and engaged. They are strategizing together, negotiating, planning ahead, deciding whether or not to take a risk, wondering out loud what will happen next. They are anxiously trying to get to the next level, shrieking with happiness, trepidation, frustration, and sheer joy.

They are learning, bonding, patting each other on the back when things go right, and punching the air when things get messed up. They are learning to deal with their disappointments, mistakes, triumphs, and failures. And they are doing this (mostly) without my help.

It’s absolutely amazing. And lately, I really haven’t been restricting their video game time together. I still put the breaks on that solitary, zoning out screen time. But in terms of interactive screen time, I’m just letting it be right now. And I’ve stopped feeling guilty about that.

Does it mean they are probably doing way too much screen time most days? Yes, probably. Does it always go perfectly. No! There are definitely times when it all spirals out of control and they fight – that’s when I’ll likely tell them to wrap things up.

Will unlimited interactive screen time be the norm around here forever? I’m not sure. I’m going to see how it goes.

But for now, my boys are really enjoying this time together. Yes, it involves screens, but they are learning, growing, and bonding in ways I never thought possible. And I am here for it.

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