“Mom, I’m so stressed! I can’t stop. I can’t take it anymore. I hate my life!” were the words uttered by a 13-year-old male after his parents confronted him for lying about the amount of time he spent playing his favorite video game. His parents attempted to set limits on his gaming after they noticed he was becoming more irritable, was spending less time with family and friends, and had lost interest in activities he previously enjoyed.
It’s no surprise that the increase in video game use among youth can lead to decreased emotional and social functioning for some. In fact, many studies have identified a link between video game addiction and depression, anxiety, suicidality, and social phobia. Video game addiction or “gaming disorder” has become so prevalent that it is now classified as a disease by the World Health Organization.
Video game developers have increasingly found ways to make their games more compelling. Online games are often the most appealing and addictive due to their interactive nature. These games allow the player to virtually recreate themselves and combine social interaction with a fantasy world that feels oh so real. And because they are interactive, you can’t take a break without missing something – gone are the days of pressing pause while you have dinner or finish your homework.
Many parents struggle with how to approach video game addiction. Part of the issue is that kids who are struggling with gaming disorder often lose their connection with “real” and online friends when they stop playing video games. Parents may also be distracted by their own activities, which are often technology-based as well. And, frankly, it’s exhausting and overwhelming to impose consequences to help a youth rebuild their lives in a video-game-free world.
The goal is for video games to become a secondary activity to the “real” activities of life.
It’s clear that some youth will need to stop playing altogether in order to get their lives back because they find it too difficult to play in moderation. For a step-by-step guide on helping youth who are struggling, refer to Dr. Brent Conrad’s book, How to Help Children Addicted to Video Games: A Guide for Parents.
In order to support your child so they can get a handle on video games, whether that’s by playing in moderation or total abstinence, start with the following tips:
Create a realistic plan and enforce it.
In his book, Conrad refers to the difference between parents defining wants versus needs. A want is a suggestion and a need must be enforced. Unless needs regarding video games are enforced, we are merely contributing to the problem. Track the amount of time your child currently plays video games, come up with an acceptable amount of time that reflects video game playing as a minimal part of your child’s life, and enforce the plan. Be in charge of the emotional atmosphere by staying calm so that your child has a better chance of accessing their own rational brain.
Kids need clear structure and limits in order to feel safe and settled. Just because your child may initially be upset when you tell them they MUST stop playing doesn’t mean it’s not good for them. If they don’t stop playing at the agreed-upon time, then they automatically lose the opportunity to play in the future. My family has had great success creating contracts for these kinds of agreements, which are signed by both the parent and child. The plan and consequences are clearly stated and can be referred back to as needed.
Build in other activities first.
The goal of moderation is based on the premise that children will benefit from decreasing the importance of video games as a way to meet their emotional and social needs. Focusing on other activities such as social interaction, physical activity, chores, and homework is vital to decreasing video game reliance as a coping strategy. We don’t just take away addictions without replacing them with something else that serves the same function. Explore what function video games primarily serve for your children, then help them replace the function of success, connection, emotional regulation, etc., with other activities.
My son struggles with finding balance in his relationship with the online video game, Fortnite. He describes feeling a degree of competence in playing this game that he doesn’t often experience in other areas of his life. To help him gain feelings of competence outside of Fortnite, we have arranged to have him stay after school to get extra help with math and he has started attending drop-in parkour classes at a local gymnastics facility. He has recently been offered a job instructing parkour and is starting to need Fortnite less as a means of self-esteem. We want video game use to become a secondary activity following engagement in the “real” activities of life.
Become more knowledgeable about modern technology.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t know a lot about video games and modern technology in general. Despite my attempts to listen to and absorb my kids’ descriptions of their games, and to even play with them, I feel overwhelmed and confused when I watch them play. My son figured this out fairly quickly, and was easily able to get away with increasing his time playing online, as I thought he was playing offline with a quick glance.
Lucky for us, there are many online resources that can help us understand everything from the various types of video games (including how potentially addictive they are), to how age appropriate they are. There is also software (iKydz, Kidslox) that gives parents control over the amount of screen time their kids can have. We have the choice to either avoid these areas of concern, or to address them head on by taking more control over our kids’ wellness and their future.
We have access to so many new aspects of technology that it is virtually impossible to fully understand the long-term implications of using these tools. We owe it to our children to prevent video game addiction by making every attempt possible to help technology add richness, opportunity, and joy to their lives, as an addition to “real” life successes and connections.
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