Tag: Computer and Video Games

Modern Love: Feeling Lonely? Wearing Cat Ears May Help

Modern Love

Feeling Lonely? Wearing Cat Ears May Help

There may be no better time than the present to find love on multiplayer online role-playing games.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 29, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

The first time I met Jessica in person was when she walked out of the sliding doors of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wearing a flowing skirt, beaded necklaces and a paper bag over her head.

My first words to her were: “Jessica! Why do you have a bag over your head?”

Our first encounter had been a year earlier, on a white stone plaza overlooking the ocean under a cloudless sky, but there was no smell of saltwater, no ocean breeze. We met as avatars in Final Fantasy XIV, a multiplayer online role-playing game.

She was new to town and seemed a little lost, so I teleported to her location and asked if I could help.

Her name was Zutki; mine was Nabian. We were both Miqo’te, a “race” of people with cat ears and furry tails. Online, we felt so close, but in the real world we were 2,000 miles apart, I in Minneapolis and she in Miami.

Massively multiplayer online games, or M.M.O.s, involve virtual worlds populated by thousands of avatars that are controlled by real people. (You’ve probably heard of World of Warcraft, one of the longest running.) Unlike traditional video games, these are more like second lives: always changing, still ongoing even after a player logs off and primarily social, team-oriented experiences.

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These days, when people ask how Jess and I met, I say “online,” but I always feel a little sheepish about it. We hadn’t connected on a dating app, as most people would assume. At Christmas, I had hoped to get away with telling my family we had found each other on the internet.

“What website?” my mother asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said.

Online dating may have lost its stigma, but I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that meeting online for us meant as moon-eyed, cat-eared creatures on the shores of Limsa Lominsa while gaming on PlayStation 4.

Although, as I see it, meeting in an M.M.O. is actually more like meeting in real life than using a dating app. You’re not judged by a profile designed to present your best traits. There’s more room to be yourself, to meet someone by chance.

The most obvious advantage of meeting in an M.M.O. is discovering a shared interest from the outset. With that comes many possible related interests: other games, fantasy and science-fiction, and in the case of Final Fantasy, Japanese culture and anime.

And there’s another benefit: To succeed in the game, players must work together to overcome difficult challenges. It’s easy to get a sense of how well someone adjusts to the team, how selfless or selfish they are, and their communication skills.

As Zutki and Nabian, Jess and I went on many adventures before things got personal: We explored dungeons, fought monsters, raced Chocobos (large, chicken-like birds). It wasn’t romantic; we just enjoyed each other’s company. She made me laugh by talking like a pirate: “Want to do this quest?” “Yar!” We would dress our characters in ridiculous outfits — heavy-metal armor with sunglasses and sandals — and dance on the beach.

When she and I met in-game, I had recently broken up with a partner of three years and was living by myself, lonely and depressed. It felt good to laugh with someone, even if the person was an anonymous player, someone I hadn’t seen or even heard.

In fact, it was months before I heard Jess’s voice. The first time we spoke was over a gaming chat service. A user name popped into the channel, and I waited for her to find a working microphone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello,” she said with a slight accent that surprised me. You don’t always think about how a person’s voice sounds when reading a text channel. Aside from a few typed Spanish words, there was little indication that she was, in fact, a native Spanish speaker. I enjoyed peeling back those layers of identity more than having them posted on the front page of a user profile.

There was a moment, months after we’d met as Zutki and Nabian, when our characters found themselves wandering the upper decks of a city by the sea, sitting at a table overlooking the harbor. We were typing private messages; she was telling me about how her mother raised three children on her own, how her father was estranged from the family and often in legal trouble.

As I sat in my chair watching our avatars on the screen, I realized that I was on a date. But unlike a real date, I didn’t have to worry about body language, clothes or coming up with a quick reply. Instead, I was sitting in my pajamas, thoughtfully typing each response.

Eventually, we started texting each other outside the game, which changed everything. Before, our interactions had been limited to the time that both of our avatars were online. When one of us logged off, our avatar disappeared and could not be reached until it was logged back in. The best we could do was send virtual letters to each other to receive the next time we were on.

Now, being able to text, we were connected all the time. Having already spent countless hours together in the virtual world, we knew we were close in age. The first real clue that she was interested in me as more than a gaming friend came soon after we started texting.

I was lying on the couch one evening when my phone buzzed with a message from her: “How tall are you?”

“Five-nine,” I typed. “Why?”

“I’m tall for a lady.”

I learned two things then — that she’s five-foot-eight, and she prefers men taller than she is.

Not long after, we shared pictures of ourselves.

After nearly 18 months of online communication, we decided to meet in person, or as we sometimes called it, “the real-life server.” She bought a plane ticket to Minneapolis. As I anticipated her arrival, I was riddled with anxiety. What if she’s totally different in person? What if we aren’t even attracted to each other? And even if we are, what’s the feasibility of dating someone so far away? How can I possibly explain this to my family?

She was worried too. On the phone, she said, “I’m fat and ugly.”

“I’m bald and skinny,” I said.

“What if you can’t stand my stupid face?” she said.

“I’ll just put a bag over your head,” I said, “and pretend you’re Zutki.”

On the day of her arrival, she emerged from the airport with an actual paper bag over her head, shuffling forward blindly. Passers-by glanced at her incredulously as I became embarrassed by the scene she was causing.

But when she pulled off the bag, I relaxed. There was my moon-eyed, cat-tailed gaming partner, except in real life she was the woman I had seen in pictures: a fair-skinned, dark-haired Latina with a sunflower tattoo on her collarbone.

A year later, after a few more visits, she moved from Miami to Minneapolis to live with me. Our first year together wasn’t easy; we experienced all the fights and claustrophobia you don’t in the virtual world, where the stresses of cohabitation don’t exist.

In a way, I got to know the same person twice. The first time, I got to know the person behind the avatar, but always in the context of the game: someone who greeted other players with an animated hug, who would sit for hours just chatting with online friends about their real-life problems. But getting to know her in person revealed the woman who volunteers at animal shelters, insists on cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family, plays the guitar, sings and writes music.

The longer we live together, the less time we spend together in-game. Sometimes I almost forget about that day Zutki and Nabian met by the pixelated sea. And that’s OK. I prefer thinking about Jess and Erik and the memories we’ve made in the real world.

We got married in Miami last February, just weeks before the pandemic made M.M.O.s among the safest places to gather in large groups. The day after the ceremony, we took a long walk on Miami Beach, which was refreshingly breezy and unpixelated.

Erik DeLapp is an instructor in the English department at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis, Minn.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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Play These Games Digitally

Enhance Your Family Zoom Calls With an Online Game

The best way to digitally bond may be to beat the pants off your father-in-law.

Credit…Rose Wong

  • Dec. 26, 2020, 10:21 p.m. ET

At their best, good video calls are a mediocre substitute for real interaction. And when they’re bad? They can be really bad. If your Thanksgiving family Zoom devolved into melting down toddlers and bored teenagers, maybe it’s time to consider adding a little friendly competition to the mix.

Online games allow those near and far to engage over a common goal, which in turn sparks a feeling of togetherness — a feeling that everyone wants to have these days.

Here’s a selection of digital games and apps that players of all ages can enjoy.


“A boring video call is even more boring for kids,” said Max Tuchman, the chief executive and co-founder of Caribu, a video-call app specifically built for children. During the call, kids and adults can interact on-screen with games like tic-tac-toe, word searches, memory-matching cards and math challenges. Caribu also has a library of books that will open on your screen, and adults and kids can read together. The unlimited offer ($9.99 a month) is a family plan, which means far-flung cousins and grandparents can interact on a single membership.


If your family already has a deep lineup of online games, consider downloading Bunch, too. This free app overlays video-chat windows onto existing games, so you can talk trash as you play Uno, Minecraft or Scrabble.

Jackbox Party Packs

If some of your crew have gaming consoles and others use computers, consider a Jackbox Party Pack, which allows play between eight players on a range of devices. Only one family member needs to purchase the party pack, which ranges from $13.99 to $23.99. Packs have five games that you can play an unlimited number of times.

For The Culture and For La Cultura

While playing trivia games with his family, Teddy Phillips realized most had a severe lack of representation. “All the classic BET movies, none of them were ever in those categories,” he said. So, Mr. Phillips, 32, who lives in Seattle and works as a cybersecurity engineer, made the For The Culture game, highlighting Black culture and history. It’s built to be played in person, but also works well over video chat.

Mr. Phillips also recently released For La Cultura, which showcases Latinx culture and history. Because the culture is so diverse, Mr. Phillips brought in help from Puerto Rican, Mexican and Central American friends to ensure the game showcased everyone’s history. Both For The Culture and For La Cultura are free, with in-app purchases.

Hosted Zoom Games

For families that are not particularly computer savvy, a hosted Zoom game, where a game-master leads and officiates, can be a good option.

Since March, Michael Wade, a recent M.B.A. graduate based in Richmond. Va., has been building and hosting Trivia Throwdown Online, a Zoom-based trivia game that breaks families into teams for a “Family Feud” meets “Jeopardy”-style match. “It’s built based on the idea of, how do we get people to engage with each other and work together,” he said.

Mr. Wade writes questions specific to age ranges, which means Grandma and your tween niece will both have an equal chance at getting a pop-culture question right. Rates differ for families, nonprofit and corporate events, but the average event with up to 30 people costs around $300.

Matt Hendricks, a game expert who owns Philadelphia’s Thirsty Dice game store and cafe has taken his game-hosting business online too, charging around $270 (depending on group size). Recently, an art-based game called Duplik has been especially popular. The game relies on cooperation between small groups, which “makes people feel like they’re together,” he said. That’s the key to making everyone feel like a winner.

It’s Time for a Digital Detox. (You Know You Need It.)

When is enough enough?

Even though the presidential election is over, we’re still doomscrolling through gloomy news about the coronavirus surge. The rest of your daily routine is probably something like mine while stuck at home in the pandemic: Divided among streaming movies on Netflix, watching home improvement videos on YouTube and playing video games. All of these activities involve staring at a screen.

There has to be more to life than this. With the holiday season upon us, now is a good time to take a breather and consider a digital detox.

No, that doesn’t mean quitting the internet cold turkey. No one would expect that from us right now. Think of it as going on a diet and replacing bad habits with healthier ones to give our weary eyes some much needed downtime from tech.

“There’s lots of great things to do online, but moderation is often the best rule for life, and it’s no different when it comes to screens,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” a book about younger generations growing up in the smartphone era.

Too much screen time can take a toll on our mental health, depriving us of sleep and more productive tasks, experts said. I, for one, am experiencing this. Before the pandemic, my average daily screen time on my phone was three and a half hours. Over the last eight months, that has nearly doubled.

So I turned to psychology experts for their advice. From setting limits to finding alternatives to being glued to our phones, here’s what we can do.

Come Up With a Plan

Not all screen time is bad — after all, many students are attending school via videoconferencing apps. So Step One is assessing which parts of screen time feel toxic and make you unhappy. That could be reading the news or scrolling through Twitter and Facebook. Step Two is creating a realistic plan to minimize consumption of the bad stuff.

You could set modest goals, such as a time limit of 20 minutes a day for reading news on weekends. If that feels doable, shorten the time limit and make it a daily goal. Repetition will help you form new habits.

That’s easier said than done. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and co-author of the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” recommended creating calendar events for just about everything, including browsing the web and taking breaks. This helps create structure.

For example, you could block off 8 a.m. to read the news for 10 minutes, and 20 minutes from 1 p.m. for riding the exercise bike. If you feel tempted to pick up your phone during your exercise break, you would be aware that any screen time would be violating the time you dedicated to exercise.

Most important, treat screen time as if it were a piece of candy that you occasionally allow yourself to indulge. Don’t think of it as taking a break as that may do the opposite of relaxing you.

“Not all breaks are created equal,” Dr. Gazzaley said. “If you take a break and go into social media or a news program, it can get hard to get out of that rabbit hole.”

Create No-Phone Zones

We need to recharge our phones overnight, but that doesn’t mean the devices need to be next to us while we sleep. Many studies have shown that people who keep phones in their bedrooms sleep more poorly, according to Dr. Twenge.

Smartphones are harmful to our slumber in many ways. The blue light from screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, and some content we consume — especially news — can be psychologically stimulating and keep us awake. So it’s best not to look at phones within an hour before bed. What’s more, the phone’s proximity could tempt you to wake up and check it in the middle of the night.

“My No. 1 piece of advice is no phones in the bedroom overnight — this is for adults and teens,” Dr. Twenge said. “Have a charging station outside the bedroom.”

Outside of our bedrooms, we can create other No-Phone Zones. The dinner table, for example, is a prime opportunity for families to agree to put phones away for at least 30 minutes and reconnect.

Resist the Hooks

Tech products have designed many mechanisms to keep us glued to our screens. Facebook and Twitter, for example, made their timelines so that you could scroll endlessly through updates, maximizing the amount of time you spend on their sites.

Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” said that tech companies employed techniques in behavioral psychology that make us addicted to their products.

He highlighted two major hooks:

  • Artificial goals. Similar to video games, social media sites create goals to keep users engaged. Those include the number of likes and followers we accrue on Facebook or Twitter. The problem? The goals are never fulfilled.

  • Friction-free media. YouTube automatically plays the next recommended video, not to mention the never-ending Facebook and Twitter scrolling. “Before there was a natural end to every experience,” like reading the last page of a book, he said. “One of the biggest things tech companies have done was to remove stopping cues.”

What to do? For starters, we can resist the hooks by making our phones less intrusive. Turn off notifications for all apps except those that are essential for work and keeping in touch with people you care about. If you feel strongly addicted, take an extreme measure and turn the phone to grayscale mode, Dr. Alter said.

There’s also a simpler exercise. We can remind ourselves that outside of work, a lot of what we do online doesn’t matter, and it’s time that can be better spent elsewhere.

“The difference between getting 10 likes and 20 likes, it’s all just meaningless,” Dr. Alter said.

Pokémon Has Children on the Move


The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.

The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.Credit

Parents looking for a way to get children moving and off the couch this summer have found a surprising new ally: Pokémon.

Unlike most video and smartphone games, the phenomenally popular Pokémon Go, which has been downloaded by millions in the past week, requires the player to be active. The game uses map technology and local landmarks to make it seem as if mythical cartoon creatures are lurking in the real world all around you.

As my two 10-year-olds and I quickly found, playing Pokémon Go is not sedentary. Pokémon “trainers” must search for the virtual creatures; finding more of them requires getting up and heading outside.

Other parents are reporting a similar effect.

“My 18-year-old and his friends walked and biked 25 plus miles in two days, outside, in the heat and rain,” said Lisa Romeo, a mother of two who lives in Cedar Grove, N.J.

Phil LeClare of Salem, Mass., said that after three days of Pokémon Go while on vacation in Maine, his 11-year-old son proudly said that he’d walked 30 miles.

Along with the stories of calories burned come the benefits of unexpected family time. The real-world component of walking and hunting for the creatures seems to make playing Pokémon Go alone unappealing. Instead, even teenagers are inviting siblings and parents along. Add in the likelihood of meeting other players at Poké-stops, and the game begins to feel like a social event.

“Event” is a good characterization, said Jeffrey Rohrs, a father of two and the chief marketing officer of Yext, a location data management platform. The app, he said, appears to have struck a perfect chord in our culture, making fresh use of smartphone technology while offering a way around our collective fears that smartphones make us more sedentary and connect us better to the cloud than to one another. “There’s just this euphoria around it,” he said. “It’s unique.”

But for families that have been pleasantly surprised by the action and interaction of Pokémon Go, the game has created a quandary: Do our usual screen time limits apply? Do miles logged and family togetherness really make Pokémon Go different from other screen-based distractions?

The average American child already spends more time consuming media via a screen than at school. Adults aren’t doing much better. Many of us say we spend too much time on our smartphones and the internet, and our kids think so too: In one study, about 70 percent of children under 18 said their parents spent too much time glued to the phone.

“I’m wary of promises that more technology is the answer to problems caused by the overuse of technology,” said Richard Freed, a psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.” We’ve been hopeful in the past that certain games, like the Wii system, would promote family time or get kids moving, he said, but those games ultimately failed to live up to the hype.

When it comes to Pokémon Go, Dr. Freed says he is in “wait and see” mode, but dubious. His family loves to walk together outdoors. “Now you add this new wrinkle,” in the form of a game that may be more compelling than the conversation that forges bonds among them. “You have to ask,” said Dr. Freed, “will this facilitate that connection?”

As a replacement for other forms of gaming, Pokémon Go offers plenty of advantages. My two 10-year-olds and I did enjoy connecting while roaming the streets in search of creatures — but part of the pleasure, for me, was that I’d lured them away from their usual Sunday afternoon game-fest with the Wii.

For some families, the hunt has already begun to take over their travels — encouraging kids to walk and hike further, yes, but will they remember seeing the White House, or the Pokémon at its gates? On a positive note, Mr. Rohrs sees a future where the technology could be used to enhance our destinations “It’s easy to imagine a hunt for the great authors of London,” he said, rather than Pokémon.

But for now, it’s even easier to imagine getting just a little tired of children who’d rather hunt Zubats than enjoy a zoo.

Which can only mean one thing. “Part of parenting is establishing boundaries,” said Mr. Rohrs, who spent his weekend exploring New York City with his wife, two children and Pokémon Go. Although he was mostly enthusiastic about the unexpected places the game led them, “We quickly realized we needed to declare some ‘phone in pocket’ time.”

For now, many parents seem to be relishing the good in Pokémon Go, while recognizing that they will need to create limits. For some of us, Pokémon Go brings up unexpected summer memories of twilight freeze-tag and hide-and-seek. Laurel Snyder had to set a curfew for her kids, ages 9 and 10, who spent the day wandering their neighborhood in Atlanta.

“I told them they had to be home by 8, and they dashed in sweaty-faced at 7:53. It really felt more like my own childhood experience than I’d have imagined,“ she said. That early hour might even relax a little, with so much community to be found in the initial excitement surrounding the game. It’s likely that for many children, and adults too, the summer of 2016 just became the summer of Pokémon.

10 Children’s Apps for Summer Road Trips


Credit iStock

The car is packed, the pets have sitters and the GPS is programmed. But have you properly prepped your children’s devices?

While there are many apps that can keep a child busy, the best are those designed to promote active, engaged, meaningful and social learning, researchers say.

Here are some recent apps for the job. Most work without a Wi-Fi tether, are free or very affordable and are rich in bite-size bits of interaction, making them easy to pass around the car. Platform and price information change frequently, so check your favorite app store for the latest information.




Chomp by Christoph Niemann, Fox and Sheep GmbH ($2.99 on iOS, Android), is a powerful, easy-to-use video creativity experience that combines hand-drawn animations with real-time video. You’ll find your face inside 52 spring-loaded gags that you can try out simply by looking into the camera, and swiping. Pass this app around and give everyone a chance — except the driver.



HangArt: Play Hangman, Draw Pictures, Tell Stories by Literary Safari ($1.99 on iOS, Android) brings the age-old game of hangman to your road trip, using words straight out of a school reading curriculum. The two-player mode can promote cooperative play.



Heads Up! Kids by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (99 cents with in-app purchases, on iOS and Android) is another fun, social word game that is a simplified version of the Ellen DeGeneres game, in which you hold your device up to your forehead and ask someone else for a clue. The initial download contains six decks of virtual cards on topics like animals; extras cost a dollar each.



Moonbeeps: Gizmo by Moonbot Studios ($1.99 on iPad, iPhone) turns your tablet into a pretend dashboard full of dials and switches that are perfect for imaginary play, say, for turning your minivan into a submarine.



Sago Mini Robot Party ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) contains a set of rubbery robot parts that can be mixed and matched. We like how easy it is to be silly with this app. You can use the sock for a head, for example, or put two heads on the feet and flip the robot upside down.

FOR OLDER CHILDREN (ages 8 and up)



MSQRD — Live Filters & Face Swap for Video Selfies by Masquerade Technologies (free on iPad, Android) is like sticking your head inside a magical mirror where you can try on some glow-in-the-dark face paint, or do a face swap with the person sitting next to you — and you can post it on Facebook. Keep this one far away from the driver.



Thinkrolls 2 by Avokiddo ($2.99 on iPad, Android, Kindle) lets you swipe your way through a series of increasingly challenging mazes. This is the second app in the series, and it’s well named because it gently introduces properties of matter and physics. You discover that things do more than “roll.” They can also float, glide and teleport through the 270 levels.



Stack the States 2 by Freecloud Design ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) for ages 7 and up is a great app for learning about the United States while you drive through it. The app quizzes you on the capital, shape and location of each state. You can now zoom in for a 3-D view of the details on key cities and landmarks.



Toca Life: Vacation by Toca Boca ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) transforms your back seat into a tropical resort, with its own airport, hotel and island. There’s no way to fail with this free-play app, and there’s room for plenty of cooperative play.



Finding Dory: Just Keep Swimming by Disney ($3.99 on iPad, Android, Kindle) delivers plenty of well-illustrated, slippery fun in this maze game. There are 13 levels, each inspired by the movie, and it’s easy to revisit an already mastered level, so a little brother or sister can have a turn. Make sure children know that they can pause the game at any point.




Traveling at night? Turn your vehicle into a rolling planetarium with Star Walk HD ($2.99 for iPad, Android). You’ll be able to predict when and where the moon will come up, or confirm if the bright star is actually Saturn.

Google Maps is a wonderful family resource. You can install a second version on your child’s Android or Apple device, saving on data costs by using the “offline map feature.” As you drive, your child can view the scrolling maps, and help you find landmarks or navigation, dropping pins on favorite places along the way. Show your child how to toggle between satellite, topographic and regular map modes, and use the Street View feature to follow your car.

Finally, Siri loves geography facts. Besides knowing “how many people live in Detroit,” she can tell you current altitude, or where the closest rest area might be. She’ll also have the exact answer, in miles, to that age-old back-seat question, “Are we there yet?”

In ‘Screenagers,’ What to Do About Too Much Screen Time


In a scene from the film “Screenagers,” Dr. Delaney Ruston buys her daughter, Tessa, her first smartphone.

In a scene from the film “Screenagers,” Dr. Delaney Ruston buys her daughter, Tessa, her first smartphone.Credit

In the new documentary “Screenagers,” children can’t resist the pull of electronic devices, and parents don’t know what to do about it.

Sound familiar?

The average child in America spends more time consuming electronic media than going to school, with many teenagers going online “almost constantly.” And parents aren’t necessarily being good role models. A British study showed that while six in 10 parents worried that their children spend too much time in front of a screen, seven in 10 children worry that their parents are the ones who are plugged in and tuned out.

Dr. Delaney Ruston, the director of “Screenagers” and a physician serving as filmmaker in residence at Stony Brook Medicine in New York, says that screen time remains a topic that’s often contentious and downright confusing. I spoke with Dr. Ruston about her own family’s messy struggles with digital distractions, and about the surprising insights she learned making this film. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.


Where did the idea for this documentary come from?


When I started the film, I was a mom having a hard time with my own teenage kids. My 14-year-old son wanted to play more video games, and my 12-year-old daughter was always on social media. I was at a loss. I would suddenly get mad and then feel guilty. I realized speaking with other parents that we all felt paralyzed about our kids and screen overload and that it’s only getting worse.

At the same time, I was seeing more of this issue with my patients. As a primary care doctor, I saw more and more kids of all ages and backgrounds glued to a screen. I felt a real need to understand the science around screen time and kids. And as a filmmaker who has worked on other movies for social change, I wanted to share my journey in order to help others who are struggling with these issues as well.


What’s the impact of modern technology on our children’s brains?


Excessive use of screens could harm the physical development of young people’s brains. Studies show a correlation between too much screen time and worse attention spans, as well as negative effects on learning. We talk about two really important studies in the the film, one with mice and another with preschoolers.

In the first study, scientists found that when young mice are repeatedly exposed to flashing sounds and lights that mimic screen time, they develop fewer nerve cells in the parts of the brain that control learning and memory. The same stimulus doesn’t affect brains of adult mice. There’s something unique about the way screen time impacts the developing brain.

In the other study with preschoolers, researchers divided 60 kids into two groups. Half watched fast-paced images on screens for about 10 minutes, while the other half drew with crayons in another room. Then all the kids took the same test of cognitive skills. The kids who were exposed to the screens did significantly worse on the exams.

Our current fast-paced digital media, from flash games and online videos, to social media feeds and constant texting, seems to tire the brain. This has major implications for kids and how they reach their full academic potential.


The movie starts with your almost 13-year-old daughter trying to convince you she needs a smartphone. What’s the big lesson for other parents here?


I want every parent to know two main scientific facts: The first is that the part of the brain responsible for things such as planning, decision-making and impulse control (the frontal cortex) grows slowly over the teen years and is not fully developed until our 20s. The second is that screen time releases the chemical dopamine in the reward centers of the brain, and there is no other time in life when you’re as susceptible to that pleasure-producing chemical than in adolescence.

The worst thing a parent can do is hand over a smartphone and hope for the best. But parents often feel like trying to set limits is pointless, that the cat is out of the bag, tech is everywhere. I hear all kinds of excuses. But kids’ brains aren’t wired to self-regulate. They can’t do it without you, and they shouldn’t have to.


What should parents do then?


Given the right guidelines, kids can increase self-control over time. And that’s a more important indicator of success than even I.Q. I was really surprised, and you’ll see in the film, kids consistently told me that they want rules around their screen time.

So you have set guidelines. Two of our rules are: No phones in bedrooms at night, and no phone use in the car. We use alarm clocks and talk with each other instead. Those are the easy ones. For the rest of the “rules,” and what you’ll see after a few painful mistakes on my part in the film, is that it’s best to create a contract with your kids’ input.


It also helps if mom and dad aren’t checking their phone every five minutes.


That’s right. Kids don’t want to be held to a higher standard than their parents, and that’s a big issue. You can’t punish your kids for breaking the rules when you can’t put your own devices down. Also, don’t make rules that don’t make sense, and remember that humans respond better to reward than punishment.


Speaking of punishment, there’s a part in the movie where a parent is scared of taking away video games because of the huge fights it causes.


Whenever we try to enforce a screen limit there can be a tremendous backlash. Knowing the science behind this behavior helps to understand why kids respond so fiercely in the heat of the moment.

The dopamine we get from screen time is the same chemical released with activities such as drinking alcohol. The many hours of dopamine released with screen-based activities can affect the brain in serious ways. For example, research shows that those who play a lot of video games — about three hours a day — have M.R.I. brain scans that reveal similar patterns as people addicted to drugs.


You don’t sugarcoat the potential for disaster here.


On any given day, 70 percent of boys are playing video games, and they play close to 2.5 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

People like to rebut any negative talk about video games with the evidence that some games can improve visual acuity and problem solving. But are we, as parents, as a society, comfortable with kids giving up 15 plus hours of their lives every week for these video games they’re playing? Do you even know what games they’re playing?

Eighty percent of video games have violent content. With these games, the data shows an increased risk in aggressive thoughts and actions. It is not surprising that these games are not increasing thoughts of empathy and generosity — the traits that I would hope as a society we would want to promote.

The good news is that data also reveals that prosocial video games increase the chance that kids will be more helpful to others. Those are the games where you work to help someone, build a community or collaborate with others in a positive way. I just wish the industry would develop more “cool” prosocial games.


What do you hope happens now that the film is out and people are talking about it?


I want to spark a movement to get everyone, from parents to policymakers, to watch the movie, then have a “town hall” style conversation afterward about how we can best help kids lead more balanced lives. I see this as the first step.