Kids into Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox this summer? Get in the game with them, parents – USA TODAY

In this fledgling world of almost-summer 2021, there are a million reasons to worry about your kids playing video games. What if they get addicted, see too much violence, or talk with some super creepy stranger online? 

Or worse? (Roblox Adopt Me! reference coming…) What if they lose their ever-loving minds “adopting” an endless loop of gamified fantasy creatures until their only mission in life is to maybe, someday become the proud child-parents of a Diamond Unicorn

The struggle is real. 

Screen time soared for every age group during the pandemic, but most notably, it shot up as much as 500% for some children and teens. 

Gaming to reconnect

But this story isn’t about the Everest-sized mountain of what-if worries. It’s about another trend that evolved out of those countless hours we were all stuck in our own bubbles over the past year-plus: Parents learned to play video games with their kids, and good things happened as a result. 

“Teaching my mom and dad to play (Rocket League) last winter was a turning point for us,” 15-year old high school sophomore Collin Blewett explained over the phone. “It was kind of a best-case, fairytale time that I never expected,” he added. 

Collin Blewett of Sacramento, Calif., says teaching his parents how to play some of his favorite video games helped them get closer as a family during the pandemic.

For weeks that stretched into months, Collin – like so many other kids in America – turned to screens for his only real activity, entertainment, and interaction with the outside world. It’s where he went to school, hung out with friends, and eased mounting worries. He said there were – and still are – days he games for three or four hours at a time.

For Collin’s parents – who are active and strive for balance and moderation online and off – all that increased gaming caused growing concern. They often urged their teen to spend more quality time doing something … anything … other than staring at screens. 

I spoke with Blewett’s parents – who are good friends of mine – about this conflict in late 2020. It was happening with families everywhere. I asked Collin’s mom if she knew about the buzz around a different approach to the wired world of pandemic parenting: What if they all tried playing video games together?

They were all game, and it worked out fairly well. “We definitely got closer over it,” Collin said. “It was fun to see how good my mom was at it naturally, and my dad said it helped him understand the comfort and connection I get playing. It was fun to teach them, too.” 

Can’t beat ’em, join ’em – with moderation.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from dozens of other kids and parents, too. 

“It never entered my brain that (gaming) was something I would do prior to the pandemic,” 35-year old Brooke Monson told me over the phone. Monson, who lives outside Salt Lake City, said she used it to connect with her 12-year-old stepson, Henry. 

“The thing that’s been huge for our family is that Henry’s mom had to take a job in another state last year, and they moved away. Have you tried to Facetime with a 12-year old? It’s all one-word answers, ‘How’s your day?’ ‘Fine,'” Monson said. “Now we log on and play Fortnite Battle Royale, and spend an hour, sometimes two, doing something together. We’re able to talk, connect, and just hang out. It feels like he’s back home with us. It’s been such a good way for him and me to bond.” 

“Gaming is a bonding tool, 100%,” adds Joel Willis, editor in chief of The Dad, a humorous lifestyle website about modern parenting. “When I grew up, we often spent family time watching a TV show together. Gaming is like that, except experiential, interactive, and cooperative, which leads to just so much more connection.” 

As a father of two, Willis says gaming, especially during the pandemic, has become a “connecting rod” between him, his 12-year old daughter, and his 9-year-old son. 

“It’s not an isolating experience like we used to think. Kids aren’t playing alone for hours on end. We’re in the Golden Age of social gaming,” Willis explains. “Playing Fortnite with my son, it’s constant conversation. ‘I got your back, do this, do that.’ We help each other out. In between all those commands and collaboration, we talk about his life and school. Same with my daughter. I love that I can share this time with them.” 

Joel Willis, of The Dad and The Dad Gaming League, plays Fortnite with his 9-year old son.

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Willis also discovered from his work with The Dad that millions of other families feel the same way. In late 2019, Willis started a gaming community, first in a Facebook group and then over Twitch and other platforms. 

Within a few months, the number of parents sharing moments around gaming with their kids grew large enough to attract the attention of sponsors, and The Dad Gaming League was born. Today, it’s reached more than three million people (moms, dads, and grandparents are all welcome), garnered more than 110,000 followers across four channels, and 11 Facebook groups with 30k+ members. 

“During physical distancing,” Laura Higgins, Director of Community Safety & Digital Civility at Roblox said via email, “We even saw grandparents getting involved in family play as a way to spend time and stay in touch with grandkids.”

According to Higgins, “Playing together is a great way to get more involved in your kids’ online lives.” And don’t worry if you’re terrible at gaming, she says. “This gives your kids an opportunity to teach you.” 

Joel Willis and his family during a break from gaming.

Rules of the gaming road 

This is the part of the story where we remind ourselves that online activity is all well and good as long as no one is sitting all glassy-eyed in a puddle of their own drool for hours on end. Of course, everyone still needs to get up and out of the house, exercise, get fresh air and actually engage with people in real life, too. 

The struggle is real here, too.

Just like we have rules about manners, safety, morality, healthy habits, and social skills in the offline world, parents need to guide kids through similar expectations in the online world, too. 

“We definitely have rules in place that are nonnegotiable,” Monson shared. “We turn off in-game chat where other people can talk to him. There’s toxicity in the gaming world, a lot of it, so we’re always on the lookout for that. He knows he can talk with us about it, too. You have to know your child. It’s easy for them to get overstimulated. We don’t play close to bedtime.”

Other great rules to note? No spending real money. Many gaming and tech platforms seduce players to level up with cash – sometimes thousands – for the chance to “win” in-game perks, beat other players, or keep daily streaks from dying. 

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And there’s all that what-if stuff. Studies have also shown a correlation between unchecked time online and depression, anxiety, obesity, aggression, and even addiction. All of that gets even more concerning when kids have access to inappropriate content for their age. 

“Parents need to educate themselves on the games, dive into the settings and know how they work,” Willis adds. He also encourages parents to: 

  • Check age restrictions and make sure your child’s account is set to the appropriate age
  • Look into chat settings, and turn them off or apply strict filters. 
  • Check friend and party settings too, and turn off the ability for random people to join your child’s party, squad, or even send your child friend requests. 

Periodically go through your kids’ friend lists and talk to them about each person, to confirm it’s someone they actually know.” 

It might sound overwhelming, but Willis and many other says the real-world rewards in getting closer with your kids is worth it. That is, just as long as no one breaks the most important Dad Gaming League rule of all, “to never, ever let our kids beat us in Mario Kart.” 

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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