Online Gaming Playdates Are a Perfect Window Into How Our Kids Handle Conflict

One mom says she used to feel guilty about letting her kids play video games online. But then she realized how much she was learning about them in the process.

Superhero child playing video game with joystick sitting on the couch at home
Photo: Getty | Kar-Tr

Like many parents, I have a love-hate relationship with Fortnite, the multiplayer video game that my children and their friends are obsessed with. But as we're now in the third year of an unwieldy pandemic that has rendered in-person playdates practically obsolete, I can't deny the positive aspects of allowing my kids some extra screen time. Namely, it gives me a window into how they interact with their friends.

As the winter—and the Omicron surge—raged on, most afternoons and weekends would find my 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in front of their respective gaming devices trying to "save the world" with their friends (some of whom live just down the street from us). I was often within earshot; once I confirmed that they were playing with someone we know in real life, I'd go about my business.

But I did catch snippets of their conversations, which are both amusing and eye-opening. My daughter and her friend love to build their own cities in Fortnite's Creative mode, where they get coffee together, go to the mall, and have jobs at the local burger joint—a foreshadowing of their teenage years, perhaps. My son often plays in squads that include friends from different facets of his life—his baseball teammates, his classmates, and his besties who go to different schools—and I enjoy hearing them strategize together as they navigate each new season's terrain.

There have been some situations that have given me pause, like when I heard my son diagnose one of his classmates with "anger issues" or when a boy in the group my kids were playing with called one of the girls a "bitch." There's also the casual use of the words "toxic," which my son and his friends apply to anyone who says anything that's even remotely unkind, and "raging," used to describe a kid who gets upset when the game doesn't go their way. Since I'm essentially eavesdropping on these exchanges, I do wonder when—or even if—I should interject. My daughter often asks me for help when she is upset by conflicts that arise (especially when the moms of the kids she plays with are my friends). Do the rules of in-person playdates apply to online ones?

Let Kids Learn How to Resolve Issues On Their Own

For the most part, yes, according to Randi Pochtar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Study Center and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City. "Much like an in-person playdate, we typically don't want to intervene unless there's a safety concern," she says. "We want kids to navigate and problem-solve on their own. But parents can help their children understand what the problem is and how to solve it."

For younger kids, this may involve role-playing or giving them the language needed to communicate with their friends. "Younger kids are still working through how to resolve conflict on their own and sometimes it's not easy to put their feelings into words," says Christina Mirtes, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, who adds that this is especially true given all of the missed social opportunities the pandemic has wrought. She suggests asking your kids how they feel when their friend does certain things and encouraging them to use phrases such as, "When you do X it makes me feel bad" or "I have more fun with you when we share."

When—And How—To Intervene

If the problem continues despite your child's efforts, and you do have a relationship with the other parent, it's OK to have a conversation with them too, says Dr. Pochtar. Kids can also find someone else to play with, a strategy I often encourage.

For older kids, who may not welcome a parent's eavesdropping, Dr. Pochtar says taking an inquisitive approach is key. For instance, I worried that my son's assessment of his friend's anger while playing Fortnite might affect their relationship in real life. (I also wondered how he knew what the term "anger issues" meant.) In that situation, "you want to address it with curiosity, not judgment or assumption," Dr. Pochtar says. "Explain that people can get overly into a game and that doesn't mean anything about them [as individuals]."

It's also important to validate your child's feelings. "When their friends do cross the line, they're allowed not to like that," she says. "But you can help them understand it within the context of the game and not take it so personally."

Screen Time Offers Some Social Emotional Learning Benefits

While we're all aware of the detriments of too much screen time, these games have been a lifeline for both parents and kids throughout the pandemic. Aside from the social connections, many multiplayer games mimic the social strategies we'd see kids employ if they were playing in person. "There are similarities to what we might see if kids were organizing a playground game," says Dr. Pochtar. "Group dynamics, how to include everyone, or handle it when kids want to play different things."

Dr. Mirtes says that these games also help kids foster a "peer culture," where they have their own lingo (the aforementioned use of the word toxic), values, and routines. "They're able to create something for themselves which is important," she says, adding that playing games that involve wins and losses also helps kids learn that not everyone wins all the time—a valuable life lesson.

Talk It Through

As a parent, I try to find the teachable moments where I can. When the b-word incident happened, it was an opportunity for me to explain to my son why that word is disrespectful. It's also satisfying to observe how our children behave when they think we aren't watching. "My son was so shy before the pandemic," one of my mom friends told me. "Now he has his little headphones and microphone set on and is yelling out commands. And his friends are following his orders!"

With the weather warming and the world opening up again, I'm hoping that the balance between in-person and online play dates will once again shift to the former. But I don't regret the countless hours my kids have spent in these virtual worlds—or the vantage point it's given me. But it'll be a welcome change to leave the screens behind for outdoor play. And if they take along the skills they honed while they were in front of them, even better.

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