Setting Limits around Online Gaming

I remember the first computer my family owned when I was a kid. Somewhere around 1988, my mom and dad brought home a Commodore 128 in the trunk of our family car. They set it up on a large desk in the basement. I typed some of my first school reports on that computer, but more importantly, I played my first video games on that computer. Over 30 years later, I still play the occasional video game, but they look much different now. Computers are smaller and faster, graphics are better, action is quicker and more intense, and online content is a thing. Games can be accessed on computers, consoles, tablets, and phones, and all of them connect to countless other people with whom you can play and talk through the internet.

There is a lot of research about the effects of online gaming on kids of all ages. We could broaden this discussion to include the effect of other things like Social Media, but I’ll focus my words on online gaming; the concepts apply to all types of online interactions. And while I’m not a social scientist or psychologist, I’ve spent 20 years as a youth pastor watching students interact with all sorts of online content. I also have two teenagers myself, with one who loves video games and the other who spends time on Social Media. They have both grown up as digital natives. As a parent and a Pastor, I’ve tried to develop some skills and practices around these things that might be helpful to share.

Educate yourself

Educating ourselves can take many forms. One of the most important is knowing what your kids are doing online. Ask them regularly what they are playing and who they are playing with. Keep gaming devices, including PCs, consoles, and even cell phones and tablets, in public places so that you can always look over their shoulders to see what they are doing. You can even play with them for a while regularly just to see what they are seeing. I remember a Friday night a few years back--my daughter and I were at a Father/Daughter function, so my wife spent the night playing Minecraft with my son. She had no idea what she was doing, but she learned a lot about what he was playing, why he was playing it, and even who he was interacting with while playing. You don’t need to be good at the game or even enjoy it necessarily, but the time spent playing together can be invaluable for so many reasons.

Educating yourself can also take the form of researching games and their content. Or it can include reading some of the books or watching videos about recent research studies related to online activity in kids and adolescents. Authors like Jonathan Haidt, Jean Twenge, or Craig Detweiler are great places to start.

Online gaming isn’t 100% bad

There certainly are a lot of dangers to online gaming. The content of video games can at times be very graphic, and the filters on things like chat functions can be very poor, exposing your kids to interactions filled with heavily adult content and gamers that are much older than your kids are. All of those things are reasons to be cautious and to know what your kids are doing online (as we discussed above). They are also good reasons to teach your kids how to be safe online. Teaching your kids never to give any personal information nor share pictures or locations is very important.

But there can be some good things about online gaming. When it comes to most media of popular culture, I’ve always remembered the Apostle Paul in Athens, noticing an item of worship to an unknown god and using that as an entry point to telling the people of Athens about the real God (Acts 17:23). There are lots of things in our current culture that point to God and to the good things of this world that he created, even if they weren’t intended for that purpose.

Building community

Games can teach things like teamwork, interpersonal skills, the skill of losing graciously, and problem-solving abilities that can help in real-world situations. And while online interactions are not a complete substitute for in-person relationships, friendships can emerge that can be very meaningful. My son plays games with a lot of his school friends whom he sees in person most days. In the few games that I still play today, I usually play them with a group of guys that I met online years ago. We stay in touch via an online chat server and talk often. I’ve never met any of them in person but we’ve developed a friendship that goes beyond games at times. We’ve shared some real-life situations with each other, and while they don’t share my beliefs, they know that I am a pastor, and that has led to many discussions of faith and life. Now, I’m an adult, as are my online friends. We have a little more ability to discern what can and should be shared with online friends than a child or adolescent might. But friendships can be made, even online. As adults we do need to help our children discern who to be friends with online and how often we can interact with them.

Balance online and offline time

Limit time spent online and pair time online with time doing other real-world activities. It is really important to set limits, especially for younger children, but also for adolescents. The truth is that video games are a great way to keep children busy while we, as parents, get other things done. It is very tempting to just let our kids use devices and play online games endlessly. While that is convenient for us, it isn’t good for them. The truth is that children and even adolescents don’t have the ability to set their own limits most of the time. So, as adults, we need to help them set boundaries. Set a timer for a certain amount of time; when that timer goes off, the game must end. How long that timer needs to be set for can vary depending on the day, situation, age of your child, or every time of the year. Or set a game limit (you can play X number of rounds) since not all online games are pausable in the middle of a round.

Set the example

As adults, we will also need to model this restraint for our children. It is very easy for us to become wrapped up in online things, like email, social media, and news scrolling. We need to put our phones down when we ask our kids to stop playing games. Online games have an addictive quality for all of us. We need to acknowledge when we have become addicted to them and help our kids who might quickly become addicted to them as well.

Make healthy choices

Once the game is turned off, help your child fill that excess time with other activities. Encourage them to read a book or to play outside with friends. Online interaction and reading text on a screen is no substitute for playing with other kids in the real world and reading a good adventure book. It is also extremely important to encourage exercise. Sitting in front of a computer screen or a console for endless hours each day isn’t good for the rest of the body. The E-Sports (yes, online gaming is a varsity-level sport at most schools) coach at my local high school takes his team to the weight room each day during their practices. They lift weights, do core exercises, and even go for runs together as a team. This creates a much more healthy balance of gaming and exercise for students.

Understanding online gaming, what it contains, and the effect it can have on all of us is very important. Online gaming isn’t going to go away. In fact, with the advent of new artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies, online gaming will continue to grow and become an even greater part of our lives. Getting to understand its contents and its effects on all of us is very important. Helping your students navigate it isn’t an option; it's a requirement.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Bret Lamsma

Bret Lamsma lives in Lakewood, Colorado, with his wife Julie and two children. He serves as the Director of Faith Formation at a church in Denver and has served churches in California and Michigan prior to moving to Colorado. In his free time he enjoys hiking and camping with his family, rooting for the Chicago Cubs, and watching Marvel movies and Star Trek episodes. You can find more of his writing at

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