Guide for Parents: What if a Child has a Gaming Problem?

The recent study from January 2023, conducted by the clinical expert Nancy M. Petry, PhD is taking into account the newest findings on video games’ impact on children’s brain, and giving advice to those parents whose children are having difficulties setting boundaries or are experiencing some negative consequences.

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Illustration: Lenka Tomašević

How do I know if my child’s video game habit is a problem?  

The vast majority of children play video games, both boys and girls, without suffering any consequences. In fact, video games are known to boost their creativity, logical thinking, and make them more digitally literate and resilient. 

However, some children can become obsessed with video games and turn their hobby into an addiction. Without implying that this is a necessary outcome of gaming, clinical expert from the US Nancy M. Petry has published a list of guidelines for parents on how to effectively limit gaming to a healthy level. 

About the study
Nancy M. Petry, PhD, is a behavioral scientist who conducted research on addictive disorders and a professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. She wrote a book titled “Pause and Reset: A Parent's Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Problems with Gaming”, published by Oxford University Press. An excerpt is available online, with last updates on January 17, 2023.

According to UNICEF’s report “Children in a Digital World”, if your kid is struggling with these things as a consequence of gaming, it probably has a problem: 

  1. Easily getting into conflicts with family or friends; 
  2. Neglecting socializing and responsibilities (like schoolwork); 
  3. Starts getting anxious when it doesn’t have access to the internet; 
  4. 1/5 of kids who have gaming obsession neglect their basic biological needs (for sleep, food, etc). 

Or, by the words of Dr. Petry: 


Parents may become worried when a child is neglecting homework to play games, or is staying up all night gaming and is too tired to get up for school the next day. Some parents notice that their child rarely socializes in person with others and spends all their free time on video games. Some children start to cover up how much they are playing.

In the following paragraphs, we’ll share some of her practical, parent-tested strategies for controlling your child’s video game habits. 

How can I control my child’s video game habit?  

As the Dr. Petry advises, for children and young adolescenes under the age of 18, parents should have a say in how much time their child spends gaming and which video games they choose. 

If the parent notices some of the mentioned struggles in their child’s behavior, these are the strategies to effectively change it: 

1. Remember that gaming should occur only after your child completes his other responsibilities for the day.  

The point of this rule is to teach children that playing video games is an award that should be earned for nice behavior. But make sure that the child is not hurrying to finish homework and other chores just so that they can play games. What’s more, you should check if they’re using ChatGPT or other tools to speed up the time and get to gaming quicker. 

2. Put clear limits on your child’s gaming. 

In the cited UNICEF’s report, it’s said that children on average spend up to 4 hours on school days and up to 7 hours on weekends on various activities online. Although there’s no universal agreement, the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children over the age of 6 shouldn’t spend more than one hour playing games on school days, or around two hours on weekends. They also suggest that some days should even be dedicated to no-gaming at all, but maybe consider introducing that later since at first it may sound like way too much of a change. 

3. In designing your rules, consider a reasonable timeframe for reassesment. 

Dr. Petry suggests that it’s easier to loosen rules than to tighten them. So, maybe the initial plan will be more strict, but then you should reevalute it after a month or two and loosen it up if the child is adhering or the problems have decreased. 

4. Determine a realistic consequence for breaking the rules. 

When deciding on the consequences for violating the rules, think of something that can be applied right away. Also, it’s important that you define clearly with your child what the outcome of breaking the rules will be and not to leave it unsaid. A recommended one is a complete ban of any video games and other media use. 

5. Make sure you know and approve of which games your child is playing. 

Show interest in the video games your child is playing. You don’t have to act as an inspector but rather as a curious grown-up. For setting healthy limits, and for your child to understand why it’s important to respect them, you should build a relationship based on mutual trust. You can start by understanding what they’re playing and why they find it interesting. 

6. Once you have established your rules, you must consistently monitor and apply them. 

It doesn’t end with the initial talk. You need to keep a close eye on your child’s behavior because they might respect it at first but later loosen up if they notice you’re not focused anymore on setting this healthy habit. 

7. Identify other recreational activities. 

You probably know the basic rule of creating habits is to introduce a new, healthy one instead of the one you’re trying to suppress. The same goes for this – you need to come up with a fun, interesting activity that your child will enjoy during the time when they would normally play video games.  When thinking of a replacement activity, try to find one that has the same characteristics as gaming – something easily approachable, that requires little to know planning, and is essentially fun. Ideally, it should be something that you could participate in. 

8. Offer positive reinforcement for non-gaming activities. 

The same way that you would define consequences for violating the rules, you need to come up with an idea for a reward for participating in activities that don’t include gaming. Most parents would opt for something that includes financial transaction, or purchasing a gift, but try to be more creative than that and reward them with something that would increase their confidence and motivation, such as verbal praise, attention, or recreational activities. Positive reinforcement can also improve your relationship with your child if it’s been affected by excessive gaming.

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.


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