Q: What do you make of a 15-year-old high school freshman who gets straight A’s, does all his homework, has a 3-hour internship per week teaching little ones to sing, swims on the swim team, AND plays Call of Duty 15-20 hours per week? Do you think that is too much time spent on video games, or is this a good use of his downtime? How much game playing is too much?
A: Your son admirably seems to be balancing schoolwork, personal interests, and physical activity with the amount of gaming he’s doing—and it sounds like he isn’t making unhealthy choices in order to maintain his gaming habit. (Pathological video gaming, sometimes called addiction, is a major problem in China and Korea, where millions of young people need psychiatric care and even inpatient hospitalization to address this issue, and the government is creating legislation to limit the hours teens can be online.)
Science shows that some video gaming isn’t necessarily problematic for kids. It can even benefit players by helping improve overall vision and visual acuity, foster healthy online interactions, and (in certain games) get players up and moving. The key is to ensure that gaming doesn’t get in the way of the other important activities of life—like family meals and sleep. During adolescence, teens undergo the second most rapid and profound developmental spurt of their lives (aside from infancy). Research indicates that unless they get 9.5 to 11 hours of sleep nightly, they are in a constant state of sleep deprivation—which may contribute to lovely morning moods, naps during class, and post-noon wake-ups on weekends.
Once homework, healthy meals, and sufficient sleep are achieved in a given day, your son likely won’t have time for the maximum of two hours of screen time per day that the AAP recommends for kids age 2 and older. If he does still wish to spend some time gaming, talking with him about what he plays can help him think critically about the content. (Although the violence portrayed in Call of Duty is certainly an issue to consider, your question seems more focused on the amount of time he spends playing them. Read these other Q&As about how “first-person shooter” experiences affect teen gamers, and what’s at risk when even well-rounded kids, like your son, regularly play violent, multiplayer games.)
Finally, although video gaming is certainly entertaining, it doesn’t really serve as “downtime.” Brainmapping research shows that during the time when our minds are wandering in between directed tasks—like playing a video game or doing homework—a large network lights up. That network appears to be the area responsible for creativity and, possibly, for our sense of self. So kids and adults may need unplugged downtime, in the form of daydreaming without constant stimuli, in order to nurture our creativity and to reflect, which in turn may nurture our selfhood and psychological well-being.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,