Video Games: Emily Oster, Are the kids alright?

On Monday, China announced that kids under 18 will be limited to only 3 hours per week of online gaming. Those hours are scheduled for the evenings of Fri-Sun with a 9pm cut off. Go to bed, young man!

Last month I reviewed Emily Oster’s new book The Family Firm. In light of China’s ruling over how kids spend their free time, I’ll explain her view of video games.

Interestingly, she does not have a chapter called ‘Video Games: Do we need the CCP to intervene?’ She has one chapter near the end called Entertainment that includes video games and screen time. She writes at the beginning of the chapter that, “Screen time strikes fear in the heart of many a parent.” Most parents, at least among her audience, have their own smart phone and at least one TV in the house. It is such a relief, honestly, to get the kids to sit down and stop making trouble in the 3-D world. In What Women Want I wrote about a wealthy celebrity mom who has a nanny and a cook. She spends quality time with her kids, when she wants to. Most of us can’t afford a weekend nanny, but we might leave our kids with technology when we need a break. (I believe, with no data to back this up, that childhood mortality is down partly due to screens keeping kids off of cliff ledges and out of abandoned mines.)  Then, at the end of the day, we worry that they have spent too much time on screens.

Oster writes, “Screens change your brain, say the headlines. (Spoiler alert: Everything changes your brain.)” Parents like me have come to love Emily Oster’s ability to cut through the noise. Everything changes your brain. Video games are not a completely separate new form of human experience.

Helping a child’s brain develop is a big responsibility. We know that you can mess this up, most obviously in the cases of serious abuse. So, can you put on Sesame Street while you make dinner? Should you allow your son to play video games?  I’ll put the rest under Read More.

To cut to the chase, first, Oster takes a relatively laid-back approach to video games. However, this comes after 10 chapters of a book on how to raise your child the right way. She recommends that you set long-term family goals and rigorously pursue them. For example, her family eats dinner together at 6pm every night. Most parents would not have “my child will play 20 hours of video games per week” in their long-term goals. Her chapter on entertainment needs to be kept in that perspective.

Oster doesn’t think that watching some age-appropriate TV is a bad thing. The main concern with TV is the opportunity cost. She writes:

I like to think about this in what I’m going to call a wall/content analysis; this is, separate out the impact of staring at a wall from the impact of what’s on the wall.

If your 4-year-old sees an hour of educational cartoons a day and spends the rest of the day in enriching social environment, then that is fine. If a child spends too much time watching TV, then the biggest concern is what they are missing out on. One problem with TV is that it makes it easier to neglect a child.

Unlike the shows that my little kids like right now, some video games are disturbingly violent. Oster reviews the available data on whether playing violent video games makes a person behave worse in real life. It seems like the answer is no, maybe surprisingly. There are studies on this topic.

Lots of kids, especially boys, like to play video games. If their parents let them have a gaming system, most of them can still navigate life pretty well. Other kids become addicted to video games. Oster sees addiction as a situation where “intervention” is needed, although she doesn’t elaborate. There is some overlap between the people most vulnerable to alcohol addiction and the people who get “sucked in” to video gaming. With that warning in mind, she mostly leaves the video game decision up to parents.

There is one issue that Emily Oster, armed with causal inference and data, does not take lightly: sleep. If your 14-year-old boy spends several hours of his Saturday shooting imaginary people, she’s not that worried. But that 14-year-old should not be allowed to play video games past roughly 8pm, else he will not sleep well. If he does not sleep well, then he is going to fall short of his potential in the real world.

Personally, I have a long-term goal of raising kids to like to read. My practical tip for parents is to keep “nap time” going even after your child has stopped sleeping in the afternoon. On a typical family day-at-home, my son will be told to spend 30 minutes alone in his room after lunch. He can bring any toy or puzzle, except for screen devices. This gives me the kind of break I would get if I let him watch TV, but I believe it’s better for his brain. This is also practical if you have more than one child, since the younger one might actually be sleeping during the day. I’m planning to transition this to a reading time when my son can read for fun.

Last note: The new Chinese policy only deals with “online” games. It would not affect the ability of kids to play 1990’s-era Mario Kart together if they had the gear. Also, a curfew on gaming for Chinese children had already been in affect.

Edit: A week after I wrote up Oster on screen time, she wrote a post on Oster on screen time. You can get it straight from her now.

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