Calling time on computer games

Until recently, I thought we had the whole gaming issue under control at home.

After all, my husband and I do not own iPhones or iPads. Our Android smartphones do not have games that interest our children.

My 11-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter get to use my laptop a couple of times a week, either for playing games or watching YouTube videos. They were coping fine in school.

All was good, or so I thought.

However, when it comes to boys and screen games, where there's a will, there's a way.

It started with an innocuous request: "Can I have 15 minutes more?"

And from an hour of screen time on the computer, it sometimes snowballed to two.

There was great enthusiasm for doing online homework because the work takes at most 15 minutes to complete, but playing shooting games such as or multi-player games such as ensues after.

And while there are no mobile phone games to be played at home, the kids more than make up for it when we meet relatives or friends on weekends.

Gone are the days when the children would kick a ball or play a game of badminton. Bonding now takes place in front of a small screen, especially for the boys.

Meanwhile, it became increasingly difficult to put a stop to the computer sessions at home without whining or resistance.

And when I finally said a firm "no" to online games at home, my son looked listless and came up with several excuses to use the computer on subsequent days.

That reaction sealed my decision to put a stop to the gaming habit.

I'm not against playing computer games. What I'm against is the habit of doing so.

I know it sounds drastic, but I have interviewed hardcore gaming addicts and my son's behaviour appears to be a precursor to an unhealthy gaming habit.

I explained my decision to him and found several articles online about the effects of gaming addiction for him to read.

His reaction after reading the articles? "I agree spending too much time on computer games is bad. But I don't think I'm addicted. Some of my friends play even more than me and they are doing quite well in school."

I explained to him that different kids have different thresholds - some may be able to play for longer periods of time, but are not "addicted". And academic results are not a benchmark for gaming addiction.

I was more concerned with his behaviour - the absorption while playing the games; the reluctance to stop playing; and the "withdrawal symptoms" when told to stop.

I did not start off intending to stop him from playing computer games completely. I meant for it to just be a break.

That was a month ago and I have not looked back since.

Don't they get bored, asked my friends, when I told them about my decision.

Of course they do. But boredom is not a bad thing. And anyway, kids do not stay bored for long. Not mine, anyway.

When he saw that my husband and I were not changing our minds, he stopped asking.

In the past month, he has been playing lots of board games with his sister. They have been carrying out several experiments using ice and water. He has been reading and rereading his storybooks. He has been making crafts out of recyclable materials - something he was fond of doing before screen games took centre stage. 

We have had a lot more time to chat about everything or nothing.

I'm not worried that he will be left behind in the digital age.

He still uses my laptop to do mathematics and science homework. There are games built into in the maths programs, presumably to entice kids to do their work. He does play those games occasionally.

He also listens to music videos on YouTube or catches up on news about his favourite soccer. His choice of reading material includes Minecraft books on building structures.

At a gathering with his friends, after a game of Monopoly, swimming and making their own pizzas, they played some mobile phone games with his friend's and their parents' phones while we parents chatted. And I'm fine with it as long as it is not a habit.

I'm not naive enough to think this will wean him off screen games completely. But this past month has proven to him, and us, that he can do without regular computer games. And there are many other types of fun to be had.

I am thankful he has been open about telling me when he does play online games - on the maths program, for instance. Or when he goes over to his friend's home, he tells me that they usually play Minecraft together. Not for the whole time though, he adds, because they also like playing soccer, Nerf guns and Monopoly. 

I hope that by being open with him and explaining my rationale for stopping him from playing computer games, he will understand where I am coming from.

And this is all the more important because, eventually, when he does have a mobile phone, he will be more aware of the consequences of the habit of playing screen games and be able to control his actions better.

But for now, at home at least, it is Game Over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Calling time on computer games'. Print Edition | Subscribe