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The New Teen Hangout Parents Are Totally OK With

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/15/2018 Sarah E. Needleman

a man taking a selfie © Maura Friedman for The Wall Street Journal

When Lara Wechsler was a teenager, she used to spend hours gabbing with her friends on the phone. Now, she sees her 14-year-old son Shane doing the same thing—only instead of a phone, he is chatting through a videogame machine.

“I like that he’s always talking to someone rather than playing on his own,” said Ms. Wechsler, a 50-year-old court reporter in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose ninth-grader uses a headset to chat with gamers about school and sports while racking up kills.

For decades, parents worried videogames would transform their children into zombies spending countless hours alone with a controller in hand. These days, teens and tweens are obsessing more than ever over popular games, such as “Fortnite.” But since many current games are online, where dozens of people can play simultaneously, children are have social interactions while they play.

That is changing some parents’ perception of videogames, from lonely experience to social outlet.

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Nabeel Ahmed lets his 13-year-old son Ayaan play games online only with friends from school and relatives. Since most of Ayaan’s friends don’t live in his neighborhood in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Mr. Ahmed said the arrangement makes both of them happy.

“The online-gaming environment serves as a virtual social bridge,” the 43-year-old marketing executive said. Without it, Ayaan “wouldn’t be socializing a whole lot with anyone, and that could potentially become a problem.”

There can be hazards to in-game chitchat, such as bullying and exposure to harmful language. In addition, players can’t always be sure someone they meet in a game is the person he or she claims to be.

“What’s changed dramatically is kids today can play with total strangers,” said Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist. “Many kids are playing with people they’ve never met.”

Still, she said, voice communication is a more effective way for children to converse than typing out text messages. “Children are learning how to listen when they can’t read social cues on somebody’s face,” she said.

Peggy Pappas isn’t a fan of screen time in general, but she is glad that when her 11-year-old son T.J. is playing games online, he is spending time with other children. “It’s better to hear him communicating than just dead silence,” said Mrs. Pappas, a 47-year-old high-school teacher in Nutley, N.J.

Some parents appreciate games that encourage players to work together. Nathaniel Engelsen wouldn’t want his 16-year-old daughter Evie playing in isolation the way he did as a teen, holed up in his bedroom with a Sega Genesis console. “You were being entertained,” said the 40-year-old manager at a marketing firm, but “it wasn’t social.”

Evie said she would rather be social through games than through her Instagram or Snapchat accounts, because games are interactive.

With social media, “people will post things and it’s, like, look at this fun stuff I’m doing without you,” she said. The teen said she regularly plays with more than a dozen people she befriended while playing games online. “The strangers become people I know,” she said.

Online multiplayer games have exploded in popularity in recent years, fueled by sales of Internet-connected gaming machines. Many players talk to each other using software such as Discord, a free online voice- and text-communication program. It had 87 million users as of January, more than double from a year earlier, according to Discord Inc.

Christine Goudie credits online gaming with helping her 12-year-old son Danny after two close friends switched to another school. An online relationship he had developed earlier with another gamer provided an emotional safety net, she said.

The bond grew so strong that Danny, who lives in Chicago, and the other boy, who lives in New York, eventually asked their mothers to arrange a get-together.

Ms. Goudie, a 41-year-old nurse, said she wasn’t comfortable at first, but warmed to the idea after several talks with the other mom.

“We’re not in the same generation as our children,” Ms. Goudie said. “You have to adapt.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

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