Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.


While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.

Private Instagram Account for Kids?

A cartoon of kids looking at Instagram site but also checking their age as they might be too young to be online. From TechCrunch.
Private Instagram Account for Kids? Image: Bryce Durbin, Techcrunch- 2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I read that Instagram might allow kids under age 13 to get online, providing their accounts are private. My ten year old is asking me to set up an account for him like this, and I am undecided. He is a good student and helps me a lot with my other kids who are too young to be online. Alison, Daly City

Dear Alison: Ten year old boys like to play video games on consoles and big monitors and they can’t do that privately, out of site. We might learn from them how to jump into social media. As a parent you need to see literally what is going on. You may not enjoy the warfare in some of those video games or the sound blasts from Reels but at least you will be present.

If you let you ten year old set up this Instagram account it has the advantage, as I have written earlier, of being a “provisional account.” Think of it like a learner’s permit for young drivers . You will have access to his postings and can see what is going on. The downside is that it will also be a walled garden. Other young friends that he shares with will presumably have private accounts too. You, the parent will not necessarily have access to these, since they are locked down. Importantly, you cannot assume that other parents will be as conscientious as you, and provide regular oversight of their tweens’ posts.

Re:Repost

I have a further issue with private accounts as they “violate” a principle of social media, which is to share things as community. Let’s say that your son posts an unflattering picture of a girl in his classroom. You may casually dismiss it, but the photo is tagged and another classmate innocently reposts this photo from your son’s “private” site. Pretty soon that disturbing or embarrassing picture, with the girl’s name, is in circulation. She may have to answer to it for some time to come. It’s no wonder that teens prefer Snapchat, where the posts and photos disappeared every 24 hours. Until, read my earlier post they did not. It’s hard to imagine a social media site that does not have leaky edges. The official Instagram site says that privacy protects young people.

For what it’s worth, a contemporary parent has a new entry in their job description: they must find healthy ways to get kids on the road to social media and help them develop mental muscles to think through issues before they post. It’s like that provisional year when you and your teen have a learner’s license to drive together; you model good behavior and they internalize the rules of the road.

Make it ‘All IN’

Perhaps you have family reunions, a hobby, nature pictures, or a pet that can become your content vehicle for a public account and substitute for the “private” one. Your son gets the experience of taking pictures for it, scanning responses, and feeling part of this extended group. You meanwhile are able to look over his shoulder, so to speak, and share parental wisdom and advice, particularly when the content seems lewd or off-color. You cannot permanently shield him from inappropriate content on the Internet, but you can, at this young age, provide some lessons and model good behavior. By the way, it’s not just about content. It’s also about the time spent, and how it subtracts from alternative activities he could do.

Finally, I would recommend that you all engage in this family account on a laptop or desk computer, so that it remains a public and shared experience. Viewing it on the phone elevates it to a private one-on-one experience.

Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones?

A bicycle handlebar with three phones mounted on it.
Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones Along for the Ride?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just got a high-end, aluminum frame bicycle and plan to do more local cycling by myself, and also with a club. I am conflicted about whether bicyclists should bring smartphones on the trip. I can easily store the phone in a saddle-bag under the seat, but should I take a phone with me at all? Isn’t the whole point of cycling to get outdoors and be free?  Corbin, San Rafael

Dear Corbin: As people spend more time working from home and on computers, they are discovering, like you, the flip side: the need to turn off and get outside.  A bicycle trek seems like the perfect antidote for these digital times.

I see three reasons why you might want to pack that phone in the saddle-bag, but read on to the end. 

First, you mentioned that you will be cycling with a club. Often club members like to check in on each other’s adventures, and announce their milestones through an app like Strava. If that is you, then you need your phone to record the trip distance, elevation, speed and time. Although that brings an element of competition to the sport, it can also be motivational. Alternatively, you could do a handlebar mount with a wireless receiver that is compatible with apps and smart trainers, so a phone is not the only option. If  this is what makes you cycle better and longer, go for it!

PICTURE THIS!

A second reason to carry the phone is so that you don’t miss that special moment when you yearn for a picture. Occasionally you will discover a picture-perfect “Kodak Moment.”  That image could be as tiny as a lizard sunning on the road, or as panoramic as the sun rising on San Pablo Bay. The point is that you have the camera on your smartphone poised, ready to preserve that memory. 

The final reason the phone might be useful, God forbid, is if you encounter someone in an accident or if you are in one yourself. From my transportation background: in 2018 854 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, and there has been a 38 percent increase since the low point in 2010 and the highest number of fatalities in 30 years. By the way, pedestrian fatalities have increased 46 percent over the same period and people outside of motor vehicles now account for a fifth of all traffic deaths.  So, while carrying the phone might make you feel better prepared, you must keep the device out of sight and out of your hands. 

If you have a connected wrist watch, like the Apple watch  with cellular service, then you would not need to bring the phone. However, that forfeits the picture- taking ability. Moreover, it tips towards distraction. That small screen is constantly updating the time, and depending on the settings,  updates for  calls, texts, and chat. 

TRIP ENDS

Until recently, say 2008, we did not have wireless smartphones that accompanied us on  outdoor trips. I am not counting the Blackberry, which emerged circa 2000, because it was essentially a tool for business email, not recreational purposes. Until the last decade, bikers and hikers taking short day treks managed to ramble without being tethered to a phone. We tend to overestimate our personal chances of encountering an emergency, and underestimate that others are nearby to help.  And, we have forgotten that a sketch book and diary are alternatives to the photo image, even if we cannot post it on social media.

But one final note: In my hometown bikers seem to pack their phones out-of-sight but pull them out as soon as they finish their ride. They culminate their hilly up and down trip by congregating at a foody hangout for a deserved snack and iced drink. And, how do they pay? With Google Pay or Apple Wallet, naturally.