The 5 uses of video games as parenting tools: How they work and how they backfire

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I thought a small army of concerned mothers would rush my booth…instead they averted their eyes and quickly walked away. In May, 2014, I rented booth space at the Women’s Lifestyle Expo in Hamilton, New Zealand, one of the largest expos of its kind in Australasia. Reportedly over 5000 women showed up for this event. I knew they all saw my sign because everyone had to walk by my booth twice, once to get into the expo and once to get out…that and I watched them all read the banner and saw their expressions fall.

“Help your child’s video game addiction” it read. Nearly 5000 women avoided eye contact, hurried away, or gave terse replies ranging from indigent to anxious to puzzled to flippant to nonchalant:

  • “It’s not doing any harm.”
  • “He’ll grow out of it.”
  • “He’s learning life skills.”
  • “I know where he is after school…he’s gaming with his friends.”
  • “At least he’s not doing drugs, alcohol, risky behavior, petty crime, or in a gang.”

Yet, adults that worked with children responded otherwise. About a dozen teachers, headmasters (principals), school counselors, and non-custodial relatives approached my booth concerned about “the video game epidemic” (their words), especially impacting boys. (Note: For this reason I mainly refer to children as “he”, even though I am well aware of the growing contingent of girl gamers.)

  • Teachers told me how boys came to school exhausted from late night gaming, the vigilance required to stop secret gaming in class on portable consoles, and the gaming-induced ADD.
  • Headmasters described the disciplinary issues around video games such as theft among classmates, fighting, taunting, bullying, harsh language, delinquency, and a sometimes a noticeable drop in grades.
  • Counselors described the social isolation, lack of interpersonal skills, delayed maturity, lack of interest in school, and decreased participation in after-school sports.
  • Non-custodial relatives (usually the grandparents or the aunts) bemoaned the parents’ blindness to the damage done by video games, such as a drop in exercise, increased sleep loss, frequently skipped meals, loss of interest in family activities, disengagement from family conversations, or outright absenteeism from any family events. One woman described how her nephew used to love being outdoors when he visited her for a month in the summer. This aunt her same nephew as “now locking himself in his room to play video games, rarely to come out, even to eat.”

Out of ~5000 women that visited the expo, only three single moms approached the booth to seek help for their kids…the rest of the parents avoided or argued. Why was it the vast majority of the parents at the expo had different observations compared to the other adults around the very same children. Why the gulf in perceptions? Because those parents saw video games as more beneficial then detrimental to parenting.

Parents want their kids engaged and interested in video games so that video games can be tools for behavior and time-management. The observations below come from multiple interactions with parents, adults who spend time with children, conversations with patients who have game-addicted children, and reflections on my personal history with my parents and my former life of 25+ years of playing video games. Rather than demonize parents or the games themselves, I’m shedding light on the specific ways parents leverage video games as management tools so that parents may understand and search for alternative tools.

Parents benefit in five specific ways from their children’s absorption in video games.

Reason #1: Video games are a inexpensive, reliable, and convenient babysitter substitute. Parents use video games to occupy children for long periods of time, particularly if parents must run errands, can’t afford a babysitter, or find a babysitter on short notice. For the price of one human babysitter (not including the time spent to find an available babysitter), a parent may purchase a digital, in house, “safe” babysitter which may be reused at no extra cost for for weeks, possibly months.

This happened to me. As a young teenager, my mother left me occupied with video games so she could focus on her work and earning money to support all her children (along with the help of my father’s child support). My father gave me video games to entertain me when I visited him on weekends when I was in grade school.

The time and cost to find reliable human babysitters or set up alternative activities (e.g. music or sports) or cultivate other interests (e.g. science or arts) make the electronic babysitter very appealing and convenient for time- and cash-crunched parents.

Reason #2: Video games are an instant form of discipline. Ever stand in line and overhear parents threaten to take little Billy’s video game away or reduce his future gaming privileges? Just the threat alone will instantly change a child’s behavior, forcing negotiation or instant docility. On the other hand, removal of video games can backfire, triggering tantrums, arguments, tears, retaliation, or other unpleasant behavior.

All three of the single moms that approached my booth at the expo cited fear of retaliation as the main reason for not putting their foot down with their video game addicted sons. Most tragically, one of the moms feared her son would retaliate violently, either by breaking things in the house or turning physically violent towards her. Though her son’s reaction may seem extreme, it’s worth noting that fear of retaliation was the common theme for all three concerned moms.

I retaliated when my games were taken away. In 1996, my sister performed a “modemectomy” of my dialup modem, cutting off access to my online role-playing game called Medievia. I threw a tantrum then gave the family the silent treatment as punishment for cutting my access to online gaming. I got my fix by playing other non-internet-based video games on my computer and finding friends who had gaming consoles to game on after school.

Reason #3: Video games are an instant form of reward. Ever stand in line and overhear parents negotiate video game privileges as a reward for good behavior? Parents use video games as inexpensive, simple, accessible, immediate, and reusable bargaining chips to reinforce good behavior:

  • Inexpensive (relatively): Video games are cheap rewards because many are free, inexpensive, and may be reused. It’s true that hardware, software, consoles, new games, and bandwidth all cost money, so video games aren’t always ‘cheap’. However, games integrate with nearly every piece of modern (and many old) communication technologies, making thousands of cheap and free games available. For the cost of 1 ice cream cone, a parent can buy an app game on a smart phone, giving the child a “digital sugar high”. Plus the same game may re-deliver the same digital high for weeks or months at no additional cost.
  • Simple: Video games are simple rewards, unlike other treats, such as trips to the ice cream store, movies, or other things that require travel or extra planning.
  • Accessible: Video games are accessible because they integrate into the most commonly used technologies like smart phones, tablets, ‘phablets’, laptops, computers, and now watches.
  • Immediate: Video games are immediately rewarding, a great perk for parents handling a petulant child in line. A single push of a button activates instant, game-induced anesthesia to calm a screaming child.
  • Reusable: Video games are reusable, unlike ice cream or movies, because the same game may be played over and over again. Also, there is little risk of boredom because new games are released frequently.
  • Video games are the easiest plug n’ play (pun intended) reward system for parents. However, this approach may eventually backfire when the system (video games) becomes either an expectation or an obsession to the child. A child may then manipulate his behavior to get what he wants, living a private double life.

I manipulated my behavior for video games, wearing the mask of good behavior, doing what I thought my parents wanted to see, so I could play frequently and uninterrupted. A useful warning sign that the video game reward system has fermented into an expectation or obsession is when a child retaliates or finds sneaky ways to game when the video games are taken away. As mentioned above, when my online games were taken away, I found other means to get my video game fix.

Reason #4: Video games are an easy distraction to give parents temporary quiet and breathing space. Have you used video games to occupy your children? Have you ever told your child, “Just play your video games for 45 minutes, I [the parent] have an important phone call and need some quiet” or “Mommy has to lie down for 45 minutes so you can play video games”. Parents use video games to distract their children for brief periods of time, even if it’s a brief car ride and the two kids in the back won’t fight as long as they are distracted with video games.

Video games are easier and more reliable than TV as the child may not want to watch or the desired program ends too soon. Video games are a more on-demand and time-flexible form of distraction. However, repeatedly using video games to occupy a child may promote low self-esteem in the child because the child risks feeling unimportant or a nuisance to the parents. I experienced both at certain times with my parents.

Reason #5: Video games are viewed as a “lesser evil”. Many parents quipped at the expo that video games were benign, particularly when compared to drugs, alcohol, petty crime, gangs, and risky sexual behavior. One mother vehemently proclaimed video games ensured her son was safely indoors with his friends and she knows exactly where he is at all times. This in part due to the secret tracking software she installed on his phone. She said her son always had his phone because he loved gaming on it, and for this reason she allowed the video games because it ensured he would keep his phone on him.

True, there is a reality that parents should know know where their child’s whereabouts after school, particularly during the “danger zone” between 3-6pm, when kids leave school but many parents aren’t home yet. Children and teens are more vulnerable when unsupervised to petty crime, experimentation in drugs, risky sex, or other mischief. In the absence of engaging and unaffordable after-school programs, video games are the easy way for parents to minimize “greater evils” (drugs, alcohol, gangs, risky sex, etc.) and track their children during the after-school danger zone.

But what about the parents that disapprove of video games? At the same expo I met two types of anti-video game parents. The first type were parents that didn’t let their children play video games at all or severely limited their use. The second type were single moms who limited or forbade video games, yet the ex-husbands allowed video games when their sons visited on weekends and holidays.

The first type approached my booth and proudly announced they either didn’t let their children play video games or only allowed restricted hours (e.g. 1-3 hours only) on weekends. These parents also specified which games were allowed (usually puzzle, learning, or sports games) and which games were forbidden (usually MMORGs, fighting, shooter, or otherwise violent and hyper-sexualized games). They viewed video games as a rare treat, not a daily right.

These anti-video game parents also shared their thoughts about the parents that did allow daily video games, with comments and criticisms such as:

  • “Some of those parents don’t prioritize their time properly for their kids. They let the kids play lots of video games out of guilt for not being able to spend enough time with them.”
  • “Some of those parents succumb to their children’s peer pressure, worrying their kids will feel left out or bullied if their children aren’t familiar with the latest video game.”
  • “Some of those parents would rather feel unencumbered by their children and intentionally distract their kids with video games instead of actually spending family time with them, like playing catch in the yard. They want be parents when its convenient for them.”
  • “Some of those parents don’t understand or see the damage video games do in the short-term and especially the long-term. We see how their kids suffer from sleep deprivation, skipping meals, lack of exercise, ADD, and disconnection from the family.”
  • “Some of those parents are kidding themselves that the video games are teaching ‘valuable life skills’ to their children, such as goal setting, hand-eye coordination, and cooperation:”
    • “Their kids learn that the goals of killing, shooting, looting, stealing, scavenging, raiding, and conquering are fun and rewarding goals to be setting.”
    • “Their kids also learn stereotyped gender roles, such as men must be muscle-bound killers who only associate with supermodel-shaped women.”
    • “Their kids may learn limited hand-eye coordination, but lose gross motor skills required for sports and exercise. Their kids also stay hunched over playing video games which ruins their posture.”
    • “Most video games don’t teach cooperation but rather vehement, sometimes violent competition, including loud verbal abuse hurled at their gamer friends.”
  • “Some of those parents don’t know how to relate to young kids so they use video games to buy time until the kids mature and hope they can relate then.”

The anti-video game parents saw video games not as a lesser evil, but as an insidious and pervasive influence on their children that required constant vigilance. However, they may not be as successful as they think at stopping their children’s exposure to video games. Children will usually find a way game with their friends, just as I did. It was different back in 1995 because wifi didn’t exist yet, I couldn’t drive yet, there were no internet gaming cafes, and ethernet was rarely available in households, if at all. Nowadays every digital device is wired for gaming, high speed wifi and ethernet are available at almost every cafe, most downtowns have an internet gaming cafe, and Youtube provides endless gaming channels for vicarious gaming.

Parents can attempt to limit access to video games, the types of games allowed in the house, the duration of gaming, days allowed, etc…yet gaming is so pervasive that any determined child will find a way to game. This is especially true when students go off to university and have nearly unlimited access to internet and fellow gamers. When I got to university, several students in my dorm gamed for 8 hours or more hours a day. I did that too during certain periods of university as well.

The second type of anti-video game parents are divorced parents with differing views on video game use. One common scenario is where a single mom is the custodial parent and is anti-video games but the ex-husband allows video games to be the ‘cool dad’ and undermine the mom’s authority. These single moms told me they felt frustrated and helpless when their sons returned from the ex-husbands’ house sleep deprived, distracted, and grumpy. A vicious cycle can occur where the mothers do damage control with even stricter regulations on video games and sleep so the children can focus and function during the school week, yet, the sons feel resentful of the stricter rules, only to binge harder on video games the next time at dad’s house.

One single mom put it like this: “I am trying to do the right thing to raise my son and make sure he gets a good education. Yet he (the ex-husband) keeps undermining my authority, all in the name of his selfish need to be viewed as the ‘fun parent’. I have to clean up the mess he makes every week with our son to make sure our son can function in school, yet I’m the bad guy in the eyes of my son.”

The ex-husband in this scenario either: a) doesn’t feel that video games are a problem, b) doesn’t realize the full damage he’s doing, c) thinks the mother is overbearing, d) enjoys the status of being the favored parent, e) enjoys the small revenge of undermining the mother’s authority, or f) some combination.

Video games can be used as a weapon between two warring parents. Until the parents agree on the role and limits of video games, frictional scenarios like these will continue. This single mom’s story was one of the main impetuses to write this article because I know what it’s like to live between two parents that don’t see eye-to-eye.

To summarize, video games give parents a lot of control over their children. Video games are (relatively) inexpensive, a reliable babysitter substitute, a reward (carrot), a disciplinary tool (stick), a quick distraction, and a security/tracking system during the ‘danger zone’ after school. For these reasons, many parents want video games in the house as behavioral- and time-management tools.

Are the parents against video games accurate in their comments/criticisms? Perhaps, excessive gaming does disconnect a child from his family, the real world, and his physical health. I know all three applied to me. Yet it seems extremely harsh to accuse video-game-allowing parents of gross negligence and irresponsibility when video games provide an easy and convenient toolset for time- and cash-strapped parents to manage their children amidst a complex and busy life.

Parents who allow video games should ‘press pause’ and reflect. If you’re one of these parents, do you notice any negative trends in your child’s behavior, health, attention span, grades, and interest in you and family activities? Do you see any grains of truth in what the anti-video game parents say, even if some their comments may seem self-righteous or exaggerated?

Video games won’t be teased apart from the child-parent-school fabric anytime soon:

First, Video games aren’t going away. The video game industry is massive, with some video games having the budgets equivalent to a major motion picture. Video games will become even more pervasive with more of our life as common items like phones, watches, and even glasses are being digitized with ‘smart’ technology that is video game-ready. The next big wave in gaming will be coming soon in the form of cheap 3D goggles, making ‘total immersion’ gaming possible. 

Second, the children who love video games don’t want to game less. The scope of this article is not to delve into the reasons why children love video games, that is for another series of articles. Needless to say, video games are a huge part of many children’s lives.

Third, the parents who allow video games don’t necessarily want to give up one of their best child-management tools. Even if parents attempt to clamp down on usage, their children may retaliate or seek clandestine/furtive means to game in secret.

Fourth, parents who are against video games will have trouble completely stopping their children from gaming. Games are so pervasive that everyone its truly difficult to limit a child’s exposure, especially as that child gets older and more mobile and independent.

Fifth, adults who do perceive a negative impact on children (such as a teacher) often don’t have the authority to reduce or stop a child’s overall gaming patterns. At best these adults only have the limited authority in their defined area, such as a classroom.

The net result is a growing convolution between the gaming industry, children who overuse video games, parents who allow video games, parents who don’t, and concerned adults that work with children who have little to no authority to stop their gaming.

Until the child/teenager wants to (not just ‘needs’ to) reduce his gaming, it will be very hard to force him, especially as he gets older. As mentioned above, children can always find ways to circumvent the gaming restrictions the parents put in place, and it’s much easier to do that today than it was for me in 1996. As kids get older and turn into teenagers, they have more mobility, freedom, and finances to game on their own time against a parent’s or other adult’s wishes. After 18, there is little authority parents have left over their child, unless he’s still living at home or receiving financial support from his parents. Even then, the threat of retaliation will prevent some parents from intervening.

Ultimately, someone with a gaming problem has to want help. It may take until he matures enough to realize that excessive gaming won’t help his success in the adult world. That realization hit me in my 20s and it took until my early 30s to finally overcome my excessive game use, more accurately described as an addiction. All three of those single moms hope their sons will come to the same realization stop gaming for good, and all three moms hope it happens soon.

After the expo, I realized just how deeply video games weave into the family social fabric. “Help your child’s video game addiction” was too confrontational a message because it essentially accused parents of enabling an addiction in their child, especially when many parents perceive video games as effective and acceptable parenting tools. No wonder they avoided my booth or offered rebuttals. Until communities, schools, and society at large can support parents to find other means as convenient, cheap, and available as video games, and until parents have access to safe, supervised, and engaging after-school programs, parents will continue to use video games as the ‘lesser evil’ to manage their children in their complex and often overwhelming, busy, and expensive world.

About the author:

Dr. Shay overcame his 25+ year video game addiction. He now helps others overcome their video game addictions naturally, both in his clinic in New Zealand as a doctor of chiropractic, acupuncturist, and functional neurologist, as well as coaching worldwide via Skype. Learn more about his story in this video below:

Dr. Shay is also the author the free ebook: “7 Ways to Game Less: How to Unplug and Live More”


If you have a problem with video game use, Dr. Shay coaches individuals to game less and live more, including:

  • Single men & women age ~25 to 40 who want to game less so they can date more and live more.
  • Men & women in relationships age ~25 to 40 who want to game less so they can love more.
  • Executives and small business owners who want to game less so they can earn more.

For a free “Video Game Addiction Breakthrough” session for gamers, apply here: bit.ly/GameLessLiveMore


If you are not a problem gamer, but are concerned about someone that is, Dr. Shay also coaches family and friends of problem gamers, including: 

  • Parents of children who game too much.
  • Spouses, family, and partners of problem gamers.
  • Schools and non-profits who want children to game less so the children can learn more.

For a free “Stop Their Gaming Addiction” session for friends and family of problem gamers, apply here: bit.ly/HelpThemGameLess


[Comment section: Suggestions are welcome to for alternatives to video games that accomplish some or all of the 5 ways video games are used as parenting tools for behavior and time management].

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