Kids Hooked on Video Games? Read This Before Anything Else.
“My kid is gaming all the time and I don’t know why”. Sound familiar? Read on – this might just be the article you’ve been looking for.
Unlike marbles or pinball machines, video games are no longer just a passing ‘fad’. And, with no sign of the digital revolution slowing down, it looks like they’re here to stay.
These days, if you’re a parent of a school-aged child or teen, chances are they’ve played a video game at least once (I can already feel some of your eyes rolling – “Just once? Try every single day!!”).
The problem is that never before have we seen a hobby as engaging and immersive as video games. Understandably, this might be a godsend for some (“Unbelievable – two hours in the evening to myself!”). However when you start to notice their grades slipping; when they start pushing boundaries by staying up later and later; and when they cut out other activities so they have more time to game, then you might have a problem on your hands.
Why do kids game?
Why, why, why?! It’s the question that makes you want to tear your hair out; the question that plagues you every time you’ve called them for dinner twenty times or seen another shocking report card. Why can’t they just turn the darn thing off??
The answer, however, is a lot more complex than you might think. It’s also a lot more important than you might think, because understanding what your child gets out of gaming can actually make things a whole lot easier when it comes to trying to change their behaviour.
- The excitement
- There’s no denying it. A good video game can get the adrenaline pumping and the heart racing. And with more levels, quests, time limits and skill tests than you could ever compare to a pinball machine or television show, it’s easy to see why video games are the more attractive option to homework, chores, or even other leisure activities.
- The sense of achievement
- With most games these days having multiple skill levels, kids feel a strong sense of accomplishment when they play. Rising through the levels often gives them more in-game powers, wealth and status; to kids surrounded by the pressure of school and constantly needing to ‘do well’, these things feel great! Many games like World of Warcraft also have no end, so kids are drawn into a never-ending cycle of seeking and conquering levels that continue indefinitely.
- Feeling in control
- Kids are, more or less, used to being told what to do. What to wear, what time to go to school, when to come home after going to a friend’s place, and so on. In a video game however, they have the ultimate control. Whether they’re a powerful Warlock battling enemies, a vigilante superhero fighting crime, or a skilled rally-car driver, they call the shots. This can be a pretty powerful feeling for a young person.
- Social connection
- Many online games have a social aspect, where players join together in groups to kill difficult monsters, find items that they couldn’t find on their own, and battle against other player teams. In this online world, they can be whoever they want to be and are not judged the way they might be at school. As well as this, teams often play together at regular times and your child’s ‘character’ or ‘avatar’ might play a crucial role – their team is depending on them! These feelings of responsibility to the team, inclusion and social competence can be incredibly appealing to young people, especially if they’re socially anxious.
- As a creative outlet
- It’s a wonderful thing to be completely immersed in an activity. In video games, you child has the ability to explore and discover other things players don’t know, create a character with their own ‘personality’, interact with others, and choose what they do in the game. In many ways, gaming can be a very creative activity. While you might wish they had the same passion and creativity for their homework or other pursuits, your child might in fact be channelling their creativity into gaming.
How do I know if there’s a problem?
You might feel your child’s video gaming is just a harmless ‘hobby’. After all, they’re not out taking drugs or shoplifting – they’re safe at home, in their room, staying out of mischief. Or, you might think their video gaming is a bit excessive, but you’re not sure if it’s really that big a deal. All kids need an outlet, right?
However, there are some clear signs that your child’s video gaming may be becoming a problem, so keep an eye out for these:
- It starts to cause problems with their day-to-day functioning, e.g. daily responsibilities, social relationships, health.
- This is perhaps the most telling sign for differentiating ‘normal’ video gaming from ‘problem’ video gaming. You might have noticed their grades start to drop, their previously tidy room becoming a complete mess, or they might be constantly falling asleep in class due to late-night gaming binges. They might start to prefer their online or video game ‘world’ to their real-world friends, or you might find your own relationship with them becoming strained.
- They start to lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
- Sporting teams, after-school activities, reading, creative pursuits – if they start dropping out of these activities to have more time to play video games instead, this may indicate that their gaming is becoming a problem.
- Their mood changes when they’re gaming.
- You notice that they’re grumpy, angry, or irritable whenever they’re not gaming, yet this disappears completely as soon as they’re able to get back on. Sometimes you might feel that the only way to end a screaming match is to let them go back to their game.
- They lie about how much they game.
- Your child might lie outright about how much time they’ve gamed, or they might start being deceptive to fit in more game-time. It can be useful to check in with their teachers too, to find out if they’ve been sneaking in game-time at school.
What can I do at home to fix it?
As you may already know, encouraging your child to change their behaviour is not necessarily easy. You might have already had countless arguments, screaming matches and threats to disconnect all the devices in the house, to no avail.
Here are some strategies you can try at home to help curb your child’s gaming use and restore some balance to their routine.
- Talk to your child about their gaming.
- Set a time to talk about the issue – preferably (in fact, definitely!) when they’re not gaming. Explain your concerns (e.g. their grades are falling, they’re losing contact with friends), but also find out what they like about gaming (the points earlier might give you some clues). Be curious! It will make things much easier if they feel that you understand their perspective.
- Set firm boundaries on time limits.
- Set a daily limit on game-time. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children and teens should not engage with entertainment media for more than 1-2 hours per day (however keep in mind that this is total use for the day!). Depending on your child’s age, it might help to negotiate with them when their game-time should be, so they feel a sense of compromise in the situation. Make sure these time limits are kept consistent, especially if you’re in a co-parenting situation. Whether you blanket ban computer games during the week is up to you.
- Use gaming as a reward rather than an everyday ‘allowance’.
- This will ensure your child still gets their chores or homework done. You might even like to ‘gamify’ the process: different tasks or chores might earn them different amounts of ‘XP’ (‘Experience Points’ in the gaming world), and they can ‘unlock’ their game time once they’ve earned a certain amount, e.g. 50 XP.
- Use external cues (e.g. alarms) to signal when it’s time to finish gaming.
- Make sure there is plenty of notice that game-time has finished. This could be an alarm, an automated computer notification, or a call out from you that it’s time to “come back to the Real World”.
- Help your child to rediscover other activities outside of gaming.
- Your child may have given up a number of activities to enable them to game more. Thus, the danger of just focusing on reducing their gaming is that they’ll have no other activities to fill the spare time. Helping them rediscover activities they used to do (or finding new activities for them to try) will give them something to focus on other than gaming.
N.B. Be mindful of completely removing internet or gaming access as a consequence for misbehaviour. In some cases, gaming may be the child’s only social outlet, and taking it away completely could result in them becoming depressed or socially isolated. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never remove their access. Just make sure that all impacts of doing so are considered, and that the consequence you negotiate is effective, but not harmful.
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to change things, or feel the problem is getting out of hand, getting professional help is another option. A qualified psychologist who specialises in the area can talk with you and your child and help get things back on track.
Tania is a Clinical Psychologist at Benchmark Psychology, near Garden City in Brisbane.