What does it mean to be a Healthy Gamer?
If you’ve listened to me before, you might find me a little bit “Jekyll and Hyde” when it comes to screen usage. I think it’s a confusing topic. I can’t come out with any prescriptive answer. I can tell you what we do, and it definitely changes from season to season. I can definitely tell you this: it depends. It depends on the child, and on what they’re doing. I do think as parents we can keep our ear to the ground and be aware of what our children are doing on the screens, what the latest research is, and also what our intuition says.
Is the battle over your children’s screen time a constant source of frustration (and tantrums!)? Are you concerned they’re spending too much time on screens and that it might be unhealthy and even stunting their mental, social, and physical development?
🙋🏽 I’m right there with you.
In this episode I talk with Dr. Alok Kanojia (a world-class addiction psychiatrist and reformed gamer) and his wife Kruti about gaming and screen time, breaking down the intricacies and nuances that will help each of us address the issue in our own families. They have two young children and are navigating this world of healthy screen habits both as parents and through the therapy they do with other families.
- [3:05] How was Healthy Gamer born? Kruti started dating Alok in college when he was a gamer. They went through 16 years seeing gaming really affecting their lives. While training to be a psychiatrist Alok asked many of his mentors about video game addiction, but realized a lot of them were in their 50’s and 60’s. They just didn’t have any personal experience. Back in the day, games were not as addicting as they are today. Games are changing so rapidly and becoming more and more engaging. It’s creating tension between parents and children, and between parents themselves. Some reference the fact that Socrates said poetry would spoil kids! Video games are the new poetry! While others think video games are like cocaine. Alok became a psychiatrist who specializes in addition, AND happens to be an avid gamer himself. If there’s a bona fide expert on the topic of video game addiction, it’s safe to say it’s Dr. Kanojia. When the World Health Organization classified video game addiction as just that, Kruti wanted to give her husband a platform to reach more than just the 30-40 people he was seeing in his practice each week. So Healthy Gamer was born.
- [7:16] It’s challenging to balance children’s screen time without isolating them from their friends and community. How can we create a healthy exposure? One way to make a 6th grader who’s entire class plays Fortnight to feel isolated, is to NOT let him play Fortnight.
- [8:48] On the other hand, if it causes a problem in a major area of life (mental, social, physical, etc.), then it is a problem. In substance use disorders we tend to think that abstinence is the only way. Many people apply that to screens in general. Alok and Kruti’s mission is to foster a healthy relationship with gaming, where someone can play games and enjoy them and have a healthy and fulfilling life outside of that. They look at inability to do that. If children are not sleeping right, or not doing well in school because of it – that is a problem. If people are not professional advancing, in their early 20’s living at home in their mom’s basement, not having romance, mental health problems like anxiety and depression, or physical health issues from inactivity – then it’s a problem. For young kids, you might see how they used to love playing basketball and then you see the skew going the other way. Emotional, social, mental, physical, and real world are the 5 dimensions you want to look at for health. Technology offers us a lot of great storytelling, learning opportunities and social advancement. It’s about keeping what’s good and mitigating the negative. Look out for the fact that kids are OK in every other area of life, and that it’s not affecting spending time with family, having friends, getting outdoors, not losing interest in previously enjoyable activities.
- [11:04] Reframe conversations with our children about video games/screen time and avoid being antagonistic. Often it’s child + video game against parent. The parent steps into restrictive role. This creates an antagonistic environment. A lot of the time the conversation about video games comes at a time of frustration, with punishment around the corner. It’s late, you’re trying to get them to go to bed, the child’s mood is more irritable because they’ve been playing for a while and everyone is upset. [12:00] Consider having weekly check-ins where you discuss gaming & screen time with your child, creating a sense of shared responsibility and goals. Weekly check ins could address questions like “How’s your week?” “How do you feel about how much you’re playing video games?” Talk about your child’s goals. What are the things they want to accomplish over the week? Can you find a common goal with what they think is a reasonable bedtime? If they want to pick their bedtime, that’s fine provided they wake up without difficulty on their own. Create a sense of responsibility, and shared goals. So it’s both of you working on the same team. Games aren’t the good guy or the bad guy, but rather how do they fit in with the rest of our goals?
- [13:27] We encourage parents to talk to kids about WHY they play video games without asking them what’s fun about it. Often the kids don’t have the maturity to understand what’s attractive about it. Figure out what type of gamer our children are (do they like to build & create vs. high intensity competition?). It will help us find offline activities that they’ll be interested in. Often, the gamer that gravitates toward Fortnight isn’t interested in the same offline activities as a Minecraft kid. Understanding what games your child likes, will help you understand more what kind of kid they are! Artsy? Adrenaline seeking? Explorative? Maybe a child has acne or is overweight., but in the video game they’re none of those things. But when the parent takes that away – they’re taking away non-judgmental community. A conversation about the video games is a fantastic way to understand what they’re getting from it, and then offering a healthy alternative that’s going to scratch the itch.
- [16:40] What’s a healthy amount of game/screen time? We are mainly building on the assumption that playing video games for 4 hours a day isn’t healthy. Sitting in a chair for 4 hours straight isn’t healthy, no matter what you’re doing. Additionally, the kinds of stimuli you give a developing brain determine how it develops. Two-minute Youtube videos train attention to shift rapidly. That’s different from a 30 minute Sesame Street episode which is longitudinal.
- [19:30] What about violence? Research indicates that violence in games doesn’t increase violence in real life. It’s still important to understand what your child is doing of course. Usually, the communities that form around games are more concerning than the games themselves.
- [20:10] Move away from headsets to speakers so we can hear what our children are hearing when they play (especially any conversation that’s happening with other people in the game). There are toxic communities out there. A lot of gamers can be relatively resentful and can transfer that hatred onto younger gamers. Parents need to know who your kid is ganging out with online.
- [21:43] Watch for when our children have that blank stare/zoned out look. That’s a good time to transition to something else, because it’s no longer fun.
- [22:18]Watch out for dopamine burnout. That’s when addiction can set in, and may require more direct intervention. Over time, our brain develops a tolerance to that constant flow of dopamine that games give us. So gamers try to stop playing, and go out for a walk but get bored and don’t find it enjoyable. So if your child’s dopamine’s circuit is being affected, and they feel bored all the time, that’s a problem. They might need more drastic intervention like a cleanse. It takes about two weeks for your dopamine circuitry to get online.
- [24:00] How do we set healthy boundaries and expectations? Time dependent? Day dependent? How do you communicate that without power struggles. What about the groggy mean “hangover” and post screen meltdown? Why did I even put this on to begin with? It wasn’t worth the 25 minutes of quiet! Trust your instinct. Set firm expectations and stick to those. Parents don’t do a great job at sticking to the ones they set upon themselves! Make it reward based – if you get enough sleep, go outside, etc, then the kid finishes everything and has 6 hours til dinner but after 4 hours the parents says OK time to finish! That sends mixed signals. For young kids, give them warnings. “5 minutes”, “one more song.”
- [27:20] Find other ways for children to enjoy the characters and stories they love (soundtracks, short stories, etc.). It’s great to have love and joy in that media, but find other ways. Make Minecraft worlds out of Lego, make a Youtube tutorial. Instead of being a passive consumer, be a creator!
- [29:47] Kids who gravitate toward games are often intelligent and are seeking ways to be challenged. Especially high school students, treat them like they’re 25 in terms of responsibility.
- [32:52] Should we limit screen time? There’s no one-size-fits-all. It depends on the family! If a doctor makes a recommendation that’s not right for the family, they feel like they’re not doing a good job. Generally, sticking to a schedule is a good idea. The biggest tantrums get thrown when there has been dashed expectations.
- [34:32] We’re trying to model and teach our children restraint, not restriction.
In the end, we need to trust our parental intuition to determine what’s right for our families. And we need to have grace for ourselves as we try things and figure out what works best for each unique child. I find it so helpful to meet experts who truly are experts, who are so grounded and balanced and are not telling us a be all end all dogmatic idea, that don’t alienate us from technology but safeguard our children’s mental health as well. It can be so confusing. For me it comes back to the radical middle, figuring it out day by day, child by child, game by game. I will say that some consistency has been incredibly helpful for us, and we do err on the side of less screen time rather than more.
To find out more about Dr. Alok and Kruti Kanojia’s work, head over to:
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