Children's Hospital Colorado

Gaming, Kids and the COVID-19 Pandemic

A close-up of two kids smiling and touching their foreheads and noses to each other.

A lot of the old rules and standards are pretty impossible to follow in a pandemic. It’s better to relieve parents of the guilt of failing to be a perfect parent than to give them impossible expectations, says pediatric psychologist Laura Anthony, PHD. We are all spending more time than ever on screens: Our work, school, entertainment and social lives now revolve around them. Dr. Anthony answers parents’ top questions about kids and gaming, and how to manage kids' increased use of screens.

Parents ask: How should I handle screen time in the pandemic?

Strict limits on screen time probably aren’t practical right now. Parents should talk with their kids about how to know when it’s time to step away from screens (i.e., dry eyes, blurred vision and headaches). This is a great time for kids to learn how to regulate their screen time themselves — a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Parents should also encourage their child to connect with their friends online, as this is the safest way kids can connect right now.

Parents ask: How do I know if the games my child loves to play are safe?

Parents should ask their kids to show them the games they are playing. Parents should approach it with curious interest rather than something they’re trying to limit. If their child is resistant to that, parents can check out commonsensemedia.org, which reviews every online game. They can use this as a guide to help them decide whether or not their child’s games are age-appropriate and align with their family’s values. It may also be fun for the parent to play or get extended family involved. Online multiplayer games can be a great way to connect with family they may not get to see in person over the holidays.

Parents ask: Is “zoom fatigue” real?

Yes, absolutely. Expecting kids to learn while essentially having a mirror up in front of them with all of their classmates looking at it (instead of facing only the teacher) is particularly stressful and wearing. Schools are starting to figure this out. But in the meantime, parents should allow their child to turn off their camera when they can and turn off “self-view” when they can’t turn off their camera.

Virtual school can also make executive functioning demands on children beyond what they are able to manage on their own, leading them to feel overwhelmed, tired and frustrated. For example, Dr. Anthony recently ask her teenager about the number of online platforms they navigate for school. “Too many to count,” her teenager replied.

During this school year unlike any other, parents should try to encourage and support their kids rather than punish them for missing assignments or poor grades. In general, “zoom fatigue” isn’t caused by gaming, so parents shouldn’t think that is adding to their child’s difficulties.

Parents ask: How do I know if my child is okay if they’re on the computer all of the time?

Here are some tips from our Youth Action Board (a group of teens) for how parents can check in on their teen’s mental health:

  • How are you feeling today, really? Physically and mentally.
  • What’s taking up most of your headspace right now?
  • How have you been sleeping?
  • What have you been doing for exercise?
  • What did you do today that made you feel good?
  • What's something you’re looking forward to in the next few days?
  • What's something you can do today that would make you feel good?
  • What are you grateful for right now?

Notice how most of the questions are positive or neutral. Teens on our Youth Action Board say this is really important. They also suggest parents create a little family time every day away from screens: eat a meal together, play a quick game, take a walk. It provides a short time to connect and check in with each other. On the busiest days, it’s even OK for parents to check in with a text message — go ahead and share that funny meme.

For more on this topic, read our article How to Help Teens Cope During the Pandemic.

Parents ask: I think all of this time on screens is affecting my family’s sleep.

Of course, you already know how important sleep is for kids’ physical and mental health. You may also remember that sleep problems are often the first symptom to show up when anyone is feeling stressed, and it’s the last symptom to go away. This is because poor sleep causes a stress response in the body, and a negative cycle begins. When sleep is an issue, suggest that parents make changes to their kids’ bedtime routine, sleep schedule and use of sleep aids, and that they enforce a rule of no screens at least an hour before bedtime.