Leveling Up: Parent Controls to Fit Your Child’s Development

6 min read

Have you considered setting parental controls for your kids’ video games and gaming systems? The lack of time and the dizzying complexity of today’s gaming platforms can be overwhelming, making you hesitant to allow much video gameplay. Yet, as I wrote previously, games can play important roles, bringing cognitive, emotional, and social benefits when played responsibly (Johannes et al., 2021; Orben & Przybylski, 2019). Understanding the developmental stages that kids go through can help you set controls effectively. There are no magic ages when things happen; every child matures differently. However, knowing the general flight plan can help you make better decisions about using parental controls in games.

Developmental psychology provides a framework for understanding the changing cognitive, emotional, and social needs as kids grow. This insight is crucial because kids’ interactions with video games—or any media—are not static; they evolve as kids move through different stages of growth. Without considering these developmental milestones, you may not account for your child’s expanding capabilities and needs.

Stages of Cognitive and Psychosocial Development

Children go through interrelated stages of cognitive and psychosocial development. Cognitive stages refer to the formation of “intellectual functions.” It’s all the ways we think, learn, and understand. It includes what we notice (attention), how we put things together (logic and planning), and what we invent (imagination).

Our cognitive abilities change in leaps and pauses as we grow. Cognitive developmental stages are a way to conceptualize how these differences affect how kids learn from and engage with the world and each other.

Psychosocial stages provide a framework for understanding human development’s more subjective and emotional side. This includes how people form a sense of self, develop an identity and personality, and recognize and learn to manage changing emotional and social needs.

Tweens (10-13). Until about age 12, children think in very concrete ways. In the tween years, kids are developing more complex cognitive abilities, such as thinking logically and understanding complex tasks and emotions. During this period, children learn new psychosocial skills, such as taking initiative, being productive, and feeling pride in their accomplishments. This period of skills recognition and developing competencies becomes an essential foundation for self-esteem. Believe it or not, facing failures and overcoming challenges contribute to building self-efficacy and resilience.

Early Teen (14-15). As children enter their mid-teens (14-15), they seek more independence, and their social circles expand. They continue to improve their ability to think systematically about logical relationships within a problem. Cognitive development continues through adolescence into young adulthood. Areas such as the prefrontal cortex, which influences reasoning, self-regulation, and decision-making, do not reach maturity until the mid-20s. Therefore, teens can be impulsive, moody, and not very good at planning and making careful decisions.

Identity development is the primary psychosocial task of adolescence. Social relationships become increasingly important to teens as they provide the context for identity exploration. Teens are more likely to develop a strong positive identity if they feel valued and competent. Thus, they expend a lot of energy to feel accepted and fit in.

Late Teen/Young Adult (16-plus). By the late teen years (16-plus), youths are honing their abstract thinking and improving at future planning. As children move between childhood and adulthood, they also develop moral frameworks. They start to think about global concepts such as justice, social issues, and politics and develop idealistic views on specific topics or concerns. They are more vulnerable to the ideas of Influencers with whom they identify or admire, whether on TikTok or Twitch.

Setting Developmentally Appropriate Controls

Setting up parental controls doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Knowing your child through an ongoing dialogue is the first step to using parental controls that provide appropriate scaffolding without inspiring a hackathon or workaround.

Tweens Ages 10-13: Setting Foundations

Adolescence Essential Reads

Development: At this age, children are still developing their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, taking initiative, and developing confidence.

Recommended Controls:

  • Limiting playtime to encourage a balanced range of activities.
  • Using cabined accounts to restrict access to certain games or features that may be too complex or inappropriate.
  • Be mindful of the growing need for initiative as the child matures. Being overly restrictive undermines opportunities to make mistakes and interferes with developing confidence.


  • Minecraft’s adventure or creative modes can benefit cognitive development. However, consider limiting time spent in “Survival” mode, which may contain more aggressive elements.
  • Games provide a continual feedback loop. Kids learn from failure in a game (like running out of lives) and continue to work and build the skills they need to reach the next level. Successful games reflect Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) model for optimal engagement, called flow, a balance of skill and challenge that makes gaming intrinsically rewarding.

Young Teens Ages 14-15: Seeking Independence

Development: Teens become more independent and social but better understand the consequences of their actions.

Recommended Controls:

  • Loosening some restrictions, like chat functions, but maintaining periodic check-ins.
  • Discussing in-app purchase rules and instilling a sense of financial responsibility.


  • Games like Fortnite can provide an opportunity to discuss teamwork and strategy. Kids benefit from openness over in-game spending and clear rules about when purchases are OK and who’s paying.

Older Teens and Young Adults Ages 16-plus: Preparing for Adulthood

Development: Older teens have well-developed cognitive functions but are still building self-regulation and emotional management skills.

Recommended Controls:

  • When possible, discuss boundaries rather than setting controls.
  • Talk about the content in games to help teens develop awareness of social stereotypes, manage emotional reactions to inappropriate content, and cope with hostile or aggressive behaviors like trash-talking.


  • At this age, games like Call of Duty can be appropriate but should be accompanied by conversations about violence and its real-world implications.
  • Role-playing games can also provide opportunities to experiment with identity in a low-risk environment.

There Is No Perfect Parenting

Choosing the proper controls largely depends on your kids’ cognitive and socio-emotional maturity. Using developmental psychology frameworks as guides, you can tailor parental controls to support their growth, not stunt their development. More restrictive settings and close monitoring can be beneficial for younger children, as boundaries and rules often make kids feel safer. As they mature, loosening these controls, accompanied by open dialogue, can foster a sense of responsibility and understanding. By being aware of your child’s developmental needs and the features offered by platforms and gaming systems, you can create a gaming environment that is not just safe but also enriching.

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