THINGS PARENTS ASK
What can I do about my child’s gaming obsession?
During the years that I have been supporting young people and their parents, this is the question I have been asked more than any other. I cannot count the number of times I have been contacted by stressed mums and dads who are searching for any piece of advice that could be the key to ‘getting my son off of those games’ so that they can go outside, do homework and interact with ‘real people’.
Before we get into this, I would like to state that I too am a gamer. I spent a large proportion of my childhood, teens and twenties absorbed in one game or another – since the days that the NES and Master System introduced me to my two oldest friends, Sonic and Mario. The young people that come to our sessions know that I have spent many an afternoon (full day, week…) devoted to some mystical realm or another. I guess, what I’m trying to say is that in this article I do not in any way say that gaming is bad or should only be enjoyed by adults – quite the opposite in fact. But, I fully appreciate and support the need for restriction, monitoring and, above all else, balance.
The main issues that parents are bringing to me are –
• My child is addicted to gaming
• This is always their son, in my experience
• What can I do to stop him from doing it?
• It causes lots of family conflict
• Should I be concerned?
• Why has this happened?
‘Addicted’ is a very strong and scary term that can be incredibly subjective according to how a person views and experiences the world. It is often banded around lightly and used in place of other words like ‘obsessed’ or ‘infatuated’. Jimmy’s mum may feel that playing for 2 hours a night is worrying, whereas Charlie’s step dad may only start to get anxious when he doesn’t emerge from his bedroom at all, from one day to the next. It’s important to realise that families have their own ways of working together and that doesn’t make them right or wrong – just different (to a point, of course). Jimmy and Charlie are also exposed to these and this can create another layer of conflict if they feel they are being treated unfairly or that their parents don’t have their best interests at heart.
An addiction is a physical or psychological need for a stimulus or substance that enslaves the individual to habit forming behaviour. ‘Enslaves’ is the key word here. If the habit, gaming in this instance, is a major barrier to their development, learning or ability to find happiness in their day to day lives then this is obviously a problem – whichever terminology you use to describe it.
Due to a generational gap, often parents and carers cannot understand why young people often dedicate so much of their time to something like this. The carer can fondly remember playing outside, climbing trees and learning an instrument in their childhood days, not sitting in the dark with their eyes fixed on a screen. This gap in understanding seems to be half of the battle and often means that parents only associate gaming with the family conflict it regularly causes – especially when the war over switching it off begins. This creates a situation around it that turns it into an opportunity to push boundaries and assert control and independence – something every young person is hard wired to do as part of their normal development. A feeling of ‘us and them’ naturally emerges.
How do you react when you feel that someone doesn’t understand you, what you do or why you do it? Would you feel like responding in a positive way if someone was really negative about what you love to do? How would you feel towards that person? What if they were someone who was supposed to love and respect you?
Have you ever tried to tell a passionate vegan that they are stupid for not using animal products? How did that go?!
You may feel that this is an entirely different context but I really don’t feel it is. When I was a teenager my passions were EVERYTHING to me. The music I loved was woven deep into the fibres of every part of me. I know how misunderstood and disrespected I felt when someone ridiculed me for the things I enjoyed. When a young person has formed a love for the gaming world and everything it entails, this will often be a comfort in times of stress and will make them happy when they feel alone – just like your Bay City Rollers 12 inches did. Telling them that gaming is a waste of time, ridiculous and silly can be like a personal attack on their identity and the choices they make – widening the gap even further.
Have you ever asked them to explain what they love about it? And really listened to what they have to say? How does it feel to you when somebody asks you about your passions? And you can see that they are genuinely listening to your thoughts and opinions? Does it make your relationship stronger? If you are wanting to put a time limit on when they play, could you also take some time to learn more about it and why it keeps their attention?
There is a huge amount of evidence to support that asking someone for advice will strengthen and develop your relationship, and put you in their good books. Even if you are already aware that they are doing this as a strategy to try and win you over! Letting them be the expert could vastly improve communication, as well as giving their self esteem a good boost. It also gives you a great opportunity to check that you are happy with the content of the games they are playing. Be enthusiastic and keep trying – they aren’t likely to trust your instant turn around at first. I mean, I know I would be suspicious! Also, spending more time together has got to be a positive. Perhaps you could bargain time teaching you for time that they can have independent play.
Humans enjoy having the ability, independence and respect from others to enable them to make their own decisions and this is massively heightened during adolescence. To diminish conflict, is there a way that you can add choices to the interaction? For example –
“It’s your choice – would you like to game for 2 hours this morning and then do something with us after lunch or the other way around? Or maybe an hour now and an hour later?”
From the feedback I have had, sometimes this simple change can diffuse some of the conflict around it and show them that you trust them to make their own decisions. It may sound too simple to work but, it definitely works for some parents.
My next point would be – what is the alternative?
Many young people turn to gaming to help them cope with the incredibly stressful and difficult complexities of growing up and developing social interactions outside of the family unit. Several factors are at play here, but none so powerful as what is known as the ‘brain reward cycle.’ Gaming provides an environment that is free from judgement (it’s generally done in a room, alone, with nobody watching) where small tasks are undertaken with exactly the right level of challenge to trigger a very satisfying dose of dopamine when completed. Dopamine is the brain chemical released when taking cocaine. It promotes a warm feeling of happiness, achievement, confidence and satisfaction. The brain’s memory pathways remember this and when the young person’s brain feels down, depressed and lacking in happy chemicals like serotonin it reminds them of the behaviours that will rebalance this. This is very similar to alcohol and smoking, self harm and sex addiction. There are other places that explain this in far more detail and much more expertly than me – I will link to them at the end if you are looking for more information.
By creating conflict around gaming and criticising the young person for their obsession, it is actually creating the perfect brain conditions to make them crave it.
Providing and alternative activity will not be easy. It will take time, consistency of approach and must be tailored to the individual personality of the young person, along with their current stage of development. Some activities that have been shown to invoke similar reactions are –
• Small, achievable but just challenging enough goals
• Recording small goals in a visual, fun way that gives them constant feedback on the actions they are doing
• Making an environment where it is OK to experiment, try and fail without judgment or negativity
• Constant non judgmental appraisal and feedback on what they are doing
• Minimise the fear of failure – games strike a balance that you don’t want to fail, but if you do, you just reload and try again until you get the next hit of dopamine
Why not ask them what would pull them away from their games console? They may think that there is nothing that would do that or have no idea what it would be, but engaging with them, asking for their opinion – or advice – and putting them in the ‘expert’ position could be a positive influence on your relationship. No matter how old, or experienced you are there is ALWAYS something to be learnt from young people. Ours continue to teach and inspire me all of the time, it’s a huge privilege that they open up to me about their thoughts and feelings.
Do you have regularly scheduled FUN family time? Does everyone get a say in what you do together? Is there a video game that you can play together as a family? (HINT – there definitely is!)
I would also like to add that that playing video games, in balance with other activities, can be very beneficial –
• Use of a controller develops fine tuned motor skills
• Exposure to new technology, design and all of the skills involved in game production
• One of the only arenas for true gender neutral play
• Provides a basis for safe discussions about real world issues
• Teaches self regulation and control
• Opens up interests in different arenas of study
• Can be a great tool for family bonding
Of course there are many negative points about the content of games, as there are with any type of mass consumption media, but I just don’t feel the positives are highlighted enough.
Maybe this is an area that you would like to do more research on? Getting clued up about the game market would certainly be a surprise for your young gamer! By seeing what’s out there and about to come out you could perhaps suggest a game that looks interesting and look up YouTube videos and reviews about it together.
Finally, I wanted to say that I completely appreciate how busy everyone is. As a parent in a busy household I’m sure the prospect of this sounds time consuming and in manageable with your current schedule. We all feel as if we just don’t have enough time in the day. I have included a link to a video below that could help to change your perspective around time and the things we are able to fit into it.
If you are struggling and feel like you and/or your young person needs support, please do get in touch with us by using the contact details on our website. You certainly are not alone in experiencing issues like this.
Thanks for reading and here is the link I promised –
Kerry, Mental Health Support Worker