China sets weekday ban on kids’ videogame play. Should you do that, too?

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Bhawani Singh
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Yet upon hearing about the move, plenty of exasperated parents in the U.S. surely thought, even briefly, could we do that here?

China’s rule, which went into effect on Wednesday, bans people under the age of 18 from playing online videogames during the school week, and allows for only one hour a day of gaming on Fridays, weekends and holidays.

Of course, that could never work in the U.S.—nor would I want the government to exert that level of control. But for parents, efforts to limit gaming can get so tiresome, it would be nice to make someone else Bad Cop for once.

The struggle over gaming is intensifying as kids return to school and parents face nightly homework battles. Kids got used to unfettered screen time during remote and hybrid learning, and it continued into the summer, according to a new report from the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

China’s drastic measure, taken in an apparent effort to protect young people’s mental and physical health—and to ensure they aren’t distracted from school and family responsibilities—raises an important question for parents everywhere: How much gaming is too much? Can we limit games without making it feel like punishment?

The rule change in China made me rethink how I manage my kids’ game time at home. With the help of some experts, I’ve drawn up a new plan that might be helpful in your home, too.

Several studies have found that playing videogames between one and three hours a day allows kids to enjoy them while still earning good grades, having enough time for other pursuits and maintaining psychological well-being.

Yet a recent study led by Rutgers University researchers found that middle-school students in China who used technology for entertainment purposes for more than an hour each school day, and for more than four hours daily on the weekends, had worse academic performance one year later and reported more boredom and a lack of concentration in class.

The study didn’t distinguish between playing videogames and scrolling social media, however; nor did it ask whether the kids went online before or after completing their homework. “It’s an important piece of the information we don’t have,” said lead study author Wen Li Anthony, assistant professor at Rutgers School of Social Work and the Center for Gambling Studies.

Many parents—myself included—have used videogames as an incentive to get kids to complete their homework. The problem with doing that, I’ve learned, is that kids often rush through their homework to get to their gaming consoles faster. Just the other day I asked my sixth-grader for a peek at his math worksheet, only to discover that he hadn’t answered several problems. He said he didn’t know how to solve them. But instead of asking my husband or me for help, he just left them blank and went on to videogames.

Clearly my strategy wasn’t working. We came up with a plan that seemed counterintuitive: Let him play videogames first, and build the rest of the evening’s schedule around that. We also decided he could earn more game time by doing his homework thoroughly and correctly.

I ran this by some experts in digital media use. They liked the first part of the plan.

“We can turn the paradigm of limiting screen time upside down and discuss with children how to fill their 24-hour day like an empty glass,” said Michael Rich, director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“What I often recommend is when kids get home, get them some food, and if you can, have them do something physical because they’ve been sitting all day. Then block out time for gaming and homework. If it’s done consistently, it becomes routinized, like putting on a seatbelt.”

But Dr. Rich didn’t think we should use videogames as a carrot for homework completion.

“It gets into the forbidden-fruit thing if you use videogames as a reward or punishment, and it can drive kids to hack the system,” he said.

Dr. Rich suggests creating a schedule with your kids so they feel ownership. “Write it down and put it on the fridge so you don’t get into disputes about what the agreement was later,” he said. “In that schedule, put something your kids really like to do after the gaming, so it’s not about stopping something they like but about starting something else they like.”

Experts mostly agree there’s no magic number of gaming hours per day, but there are some guideposts.

Jean Twenge is the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” In a study of U.S. eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders, she found kids who spent six-plus hours a day gaming reported being the least happy. The ones who said they were happiest had more in-person interaction, and spent fewer than three hours a day gaming.

“The most important consideration is, what is gaming replacing in your child’s life?” said Dr. Twenge. “Are they sleeping enough, getting their homework done, having face-to-face time with friends and family, getting outside and reading books?”

So here’s what my three kids and I came up with: After an hour of games or other screen activities, they need to do their homework. Once that’s done satisfactorily, they can help make dinner (an activity my oldest son loves), set the table or play with our kittens. After dinner, we can all go on a walk, on a hike or to the park. At around 8 p.m., I’m giving them an hour to do whatever they want. My oldest will probably hop on his PS5 most nights to play with his friends.

At 9 p.m., it’s time to brush teeth then read in bed for 30 minutes before the lights are out. (Some experts say kids should refrain from screens for an hour before bedtime, but mine don’t usually need more than a half-hour to completely zonk out.)

We’ll see if extracurricular activities get in the way as the school year progresses, but I’m trying to ease them in and not overschedule after the past year-and-a-half. I haven’t decided on any new restrictions for the weekend, but we continue to go screen-free on Sundays.

One new rule my kids weren’t enthusiastic about: No screens in the morning. My 11-year-old has been getting up early to play videogames. Dr. Rich explained that when videogames serve as a motivator to wake up, it can result in kids not getting enough sleep.

When I explained this new rule to my son, his face contorted. I said, “Look, you’re still getting way more videogame time than kids in China.”

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