Every day, Tallulah King checks in with a pal from San Diego she met playing the game Adopt Me! on Roblox. “We say good morning,” says the fifth grader from San Francisco. “We say good night. It’s just satisfying to know he’s out there.” Tallulah was a pretty serious “Bloxer” before the pandemic, but being stuck at home has increased her time online—and her social circle. “My best friends are my Roblox friends,” she says.
Tallulah’s dad, Shane King, was skeptical at first of his daughter’s extra time playing Roblox. Like a lot of parents, he was concerned about screen time and everything that goes with it. But something Tallulah said mid-pandemic made him change his mind.
“We have a secular grace before dinner,” King says. “And she said that she was grateful for her friends on Roblox. I actually started to feel like it was unfair of me to deprive her of her friends by being so strict about gaming.”
Pre-pandemic, most kids in the United States were already clocking at least an hour a day on games, according to Common Sense Media, with Roblox and Minecraft among the most popular for kids. But with schools closed and in-person socializing limited, those numbers have exploded. And that’s especially true when it comes to multi-player or social gaming. Between February and July of this year, Roblox players doubled time spent on the platform, from 1.5 billion to three billion hours. Minecraft, with 132 million players worldwide, saw a 90 percent increase in the number of users playing with others instead of gaming alone.
Like many parents, King is looking forward to his daughter being able to spend more time socializing with face-to-face friends and less time in front of a screen. But in the meantime, online gaming seems to have filled a critical gap for Tallulah, and, it turns out, lots of other kids affected by pandemic lockdowns.
How gaming can help kids socialize, especially now
In normal times, kids would be building social skills on playgrounds, in school hallways, and at the park. But these are not normal times. “Video games can provide the necessary lifeline for many children who are seeking social experiences with their friends when they can't interact with them in person,” says Patrick Markey, psychology professor and founder of Villanova University’s Interpersonal Research Lab.
Markey and other game researchers believe that the skills kids learn from playing video games aren’t actually that different from what they get from in-person socializing. So when kids can’t hang out together, online gaming supplies the same essential benefits. “In the world of COVID, virtual playgrounds help children build social competence by providing the opportunity to practice how to initiate, build, and maintain social relationships,” he says. “Video game play gives gamers the chance to develop different techniques for dealing with conflict, work out various resolutions, learn how to interact with their friends, and experience different emotions.” (Learn how to help your kid be the virtual host with the most.)
And it’s not just the experts who think gaming builds meaningful connections. Kids believe it too. In a long-term study of children and online friendships, the Pew Research Center of Internet and Technology found that video games are a “major venue for the creation and maintenance of friendships,” especially for boys. According to the study, more than half of teens have made new friends online, and a third of them came through video games.
Games are such a social connector that nearly a quarter of teens say that they give their gaming handle (the screen name they use for games) instead of their phone number when meeting new friends in person or online. The same study also found that nearly eight in 10 of online-gaming teens say that gaming with friends makes them feel more connected to each other. (Find out the science behind kids' desire to socialize.)
How gaming can help build empathy in children
That social and collaborative games like Roblox, Minecraft, and recently, Among Us, are emerging as kids’ go-tos during pandemic-induced isolation may not be accidental. Minecraft is the quintessential “sandbox-style” game, in which players work on building things together. Roblox players can create their own games and share their work with others. These kinds of shared experiences, research shows, can result in kids being more inclined to help each other—both online and off, according to Michael Robb, the senior research director at Common Sense Media.
“Some studies have shown that video games can help children improve on measures of empathy and altruistic behaviors, if the games were designed with those goals in mind,” Robb adds.
Gaming can also increase kids’ exposure to people who are different from them, which is especially important now that kids aren’t socializing on the playground, or even traveling. “Online multiplayer games and platforms have become one of the only places where kids can find a cohort more diverse and expansive than their families and households,” says Jordan Shapiro, Temple University professor and author of The New Childhood: How Kids Can Live, Learn, and Love in a Connected World.Enabling kids to learn about other families and cultures is key to building their own identity and developing empathy, he adds. “It’s hard to overstate the importance.”
On the Maximummc Minecraft server, managed by Theo Winston in San Francisco, participants of all ages from all over the world frequently collaborate on projects and chat with each other at the same time. “Players want to learn about one another, especially internationally,” Winston says. “This usually means asking whether or not things they heard online are true, like if it’s scary to be in the U.S. because of gun ownership. People also ask about what COVID conditions are like abroad.”
Parents fostering positive connections
Regardless of all the benefits, parents shouldn’t be completely hands off when it comes to letting kids play online. According to Shapiro, parental engagement is key to helping kids make good choices when they’re interacting in the world independently.
Think of it like any other activity, he says, “If your kid were in a soccer league, you’d ask a million questions: Who’s on the team, how did practice go. You’re asking questions, hearing about what happens, showing that you’re open to hearing about their conflicts and happiness—without judgment and not to solve their problems, but just modeling what’s important.”
Keeping an open mind can provide the support and guidance kids need especially during periods of isolation. “Being an engaged parent cancels out a lot of negatives,” Shapiro says. “Just sitting down and playing with your kid or asking questions—that’s all you need to do.”
For Tallulah’s dad, understanding what impact the loss of in-person playdates was having on his pre-teen daughter gave him a change of heart about gaming. That in turn provided an opportunity for him to develop appropriate boundaries for Tallulah’s playing and chatting.
“I was able to reflect more on what’s OK and what’s not OK for her, instead of just shutting everything down,” he says. “I discovered that gaming is just another outlet for her self-expression.”