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Video games, online games and apps: children and teenagers

3-18 years

Video games, online games and apps are extremely popular with children and teenagers. Children might seem to spend too much time gaming, but most play video games in a healthy and balanced way. You can help your child get the benefits and avoid the downsides of gaming by guiding his choices of games and his playing habits.

About video games, online games and gaming apps

Video games, online games and gaming apps are electronic, interactive experiences based on computer technology.

You can game on various devices:

  • personal computers and laptops
  • consoles like Sony Playstation 4, Microsoft Xbox One and Nintendo Wii U
  • handheld or portable consoles like Sony Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS
  • tablets and smartphones
  • virtual reality headsets.

Video games, online games and gaming apps come in many forms: on physical media (discs and cartridges), internet downloads, and online games and apps. You can buy some games over the counter in shops, and others you download – for example, from an app store on your phone or console.

Some games give you full access to the game when you buy it. Other games offer extra downloadable content, like new levels, which you have to buy separately from the base game. Other games are free for the base game but you need to buy extra functions or features. These might be characters or digital goods that let you progress more quickly through the game.

Video games can be played by one person or two or more people (multiplayer). You can play some multiplayer games together in the same room, and you can play others online with friends or strangers all over the world. 

Video games can involve social media, and the lines between the two aren’t always clear. For example, you can share progress, screenshots or videos of many games with your followers on social media.

Best video games, online games and gaming apps for children and teenagers

The best video games for children have some learning value and positive messages. They also let children feel like they can do something well.

Children: 3-11 years
If your child is younger, the best games:

  • reward creativity and planning – for example, Minecraft
  • help your child learn about rules and strategy – for example, Fifa
  • encourage your child to take turns and play with others as part of a team in the same room, rather than online – for example, Wii Sports
  • have different levels of difficulty, so games can evolve and your child can progress through stages – for example, Fruit Ninja
  • make it easy to play in short bursts, take breaks and save progress – for example, games that have frequently occurring levels, like Angry Birds, let you do this
  • have simple controls – younger children can get frustrated if they can’t work the controls.

At younger ages, it’s a good idea to choose games with a G rating and avoid games that involve playing with others online.

Teenagers: 12-18 years
For this age group, it’s best to encourage healthy gaming habits, rather than look for specific games or game features.

As children get older most games have benefits of one kind or another. If your child is aged over 12 years, games that give her a way to work with other people in a team can be a good choice.

It’s best to avoid games that have an R18+ rating, because these games have content that’s not suitable for teenagers. 

Choosing video games, online games and gaming apps for children and teenagers

When you and your child are choosing video games, a good place to start is Australian Classification. This site can give you a good sense of whether a game is appropriate for your child.

Australian Classification looks at a game’s themes, violent content, nudity, sexual activity, language and drug use. It also considers how often these things happen, how much detail is shown and how real it looks.

Note that Australian Classification doesn’t currently cover games for phones and tablets. But these games do have age recommendations, and you can set parental or family controls to limit downloadable content to an appropriate age level.

You can also check out Common Sense Media’s reviews of all types of games and the Australian Council on Children and the Media’s app reviews to work out whether a game is high quality, has recognised educational benefits and is appropriate for your child.

Benefits of playing video games, online games and gaming apps

Your child can get a lot out of playing video games, online games and gaming apps. The benefits depend on things like:

  • what stories or activities are featured in the games your child plays
  • why your child is playing games
  • whether playing video games is interfering with other parts of your child’s life
  • how many players games are designed for.

Developmental benefits
Video games can improve your child’s:

  • hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills
  • problem-solving, strategy and planning, decision-making and logic skills
  • ability to set and achieve goals
  • ability to do several things at once
  • time management skills.

Emotional benefits
As long as your child doesn’t play video games too much, games can have emotional benefits. For example, video games can help your child feel:

  • positive and satisfied with life and less likely to feel depressed
  • relaxed and less stressed – video games can be a way to manage mood or ‘let off steam’
  • able to do something well – his self-esteem can improve as he gets better at challenging games and moves through levels
  • able to make his own choices
  • connected to other people.

Social benefits
Playing video games can have social benefits. For example, video games can help your child to:

  • strengthen existing friendships and make new ones
  • learn to play in teams
  • learn to play fairly and take turns
  • learn about how to behave in ways that help other people
  • feel closer to family, when you all play games together.

Educational benefits
Video games can have some educational benefits too. These include helping your child get better at:

  • remembering things
  • thinking about things
  • recognising and understanding visual information
  • understanding concepts she’s learning at school, like maths
  • learning new words.
If your child enjoys playing video games, it’s good to show him that you understand how he feels. For example, ‘Your Minecraft world is really interesting – building something like that must be a lot of fun. Tell me about how you made it’. This helps to create an environment where you can also talk about the possible risks and negative experiences of gaming.

Problems of playing video games, online games and apps

Playing video games in moderation and balancing video games with other activities are the keys to avoiding most problems that can come with gaming.

When children play video games so much that they’re not spending enough time studying or being physically active, there can be problems. Playing video games too much can lead to:

  • stress
  • poor performance at school
  • poor sleep or not enough sleep
  • mental health problems.

But it might help to know that only a few children (about 3%) play video games in an excessive and problematic way.

There can also be problems if a child is playing video games in an obsessive way – that is, she feels like she has to play and is missing out on other activities and aspects of life.

As in any social situation, bullying can happen – for example, if groups of children are involved in multiplayer games like Minecraft, they might deliberately harass other players or try to exclude them from games.

Video game literacy helps children understand and make judgments about the games they play. Video game literacy is part of media literacy. You can help your child develop video game literacy by talking with him about things like how games are designed, how they’re played, how they represent gender and race, and how game developers make money. 

About violence in video games

Violent video games are not appropriate for younger children.

Younger children struggle to tell the difference between fantasy and reality in games. They’re more likely to copy what they see in violent video games and use it on other children outside the game. Violent content can also upset younger children, who might not understand mature themes or understand the reasons for the violence in the game.

For older children it’s more complicated. Experts don’t agree on whether violent video games lead to aggression in real life.

Experts who think there’s a link between violent video games and real-life violence say that violent video games:

  • make children less likely to be shocked or distressed by violence and less likely to recognise other people’s feelings
  • lead children to use the violence they’ve seen in games in real life
  • teach children violence through watching and copying.

But experts who think there isn’t a link say that:

  • violent video games are mostly played in a spirit of competition and children generally behave in a good-natured way
  • older children can tell the difference between a game and reality, and this stops video game violence leading to real-life violence
  • violent video games allow children to let off steam and reduce feelings of tension or aggression.

Talking to your child about violent games
It’s best to deal with the issue of violence in video games by talking with your child about it and sharing your own family values.

Here are some questions you could talk about with your child:

  • Why do video games sometimes have violence, and how is real life different?
  • In real life, how do we cope with anger or people who upset us?
  • How are men, women and people from different ethnic backgrounds portrayed in these games? Are women always victims? How often are they the main characters?
If you’re concerned about your child’s gaming it might be a good idea to get some professional advice. For example, you might be concerned if your child is moody, if she starts withdrawing from friendships, or if she isn’t doing well at school. Try talking with your GP or school counsellor. Keep in mind that gaming might not be the cause of the changes in your child’s behaviour. Your child might be using gaming to deal with another issue.

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Last updated or reviewed
09-12-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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