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DEAR PIP: I suspect my son may be addicted to computer gaming?

Updated: May 14, 2022

He is a senior and doing well in school, but prefers to spend almost all of his free-time playing computer games, both independently and on-line with friends. He may be moving out to go to college in less than a year; how can I help him understand the importance of setting healthy limits for sleep and activity for himself when we are not there to make him shut down?

DEAR ALI: I suspect my son may be addicted to computer gaming?
ASK ALI - computer gaming addiction

*This post is NOT intended for diagnostic purposes or to replace seeking professional help from medical or mental health professionals. If you believe you have a situation that is out of your control, please seek help from a local therapist or counselor.

If you are a parent worried about your son or daughter’s technology use or gaming, you are not alone! The theme of gaming and addiction comes up quite often with parents as we all learn how to help our children and teens find an appropriate balance of screen time. In the last DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Internet Gaming Disorder was labeled as a “Condition for Further Study”. This means that it is not an ‘official’ disorder in the DSM but is one the American Psychiatric Association is researching and considering. What we are really talking about here is when your child’s gaming becomes pathological or in other words, unhealthy, pervasive and addiction-like.

The reason addiction is used as a term with gaming is because pathological gamers have addiction-like tendencies that are proven in the reward circuits of the brain. They have a hard time breaking way from the positive feedback loops that are happening on a neuronal level in the developing brain. When gaming becomes pathological, you’ll probably notice changes in both attitude and behavior. School success declining, social isolation, irritability (often from the lack of sleep), are all signs of gaming becoming pervasive and problematic. But sometimes when you’re in the trenches of parenting and surviving the adolescent stage, it’s hard to notice what’s hidden in plain sight. Here are a few things to check:

• School work is declining

• Changes in or lack of personal hygiene

• Irritability (often due to lack of sleep)

• Life and time seems to be generally dominated by gaming

• Social isolation and/or loss of friends

• Lack of interest in things that used to bring joy

The other thing that really stood out to me was the point about the child rather spending time with virtual friends than friends in the present. There is a lot of research happening right now about the personality types and various characteristics that are often drawn into gaming. For example, a 2009 study at Iowa State University showed a link between video game addiction behaviors and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Kids who struggle to focus in real world situations often find it easier to hyperfocus on the smaller, virtual game. Additionally, kids who struggle with emotional skills experience gaming as a much more emotionally safe space for interaction with others. So it is important to consider what it is specifically that is drawing your son or daughter into gaming at a higher rate than average kids engaging in technology use. Perhaps the root cause of the issue or the thing really drawing your child to gaming is beyond the game itself. Understanding that will help you create a plan to improve the situation.

Boundaries are ESSENTIAL when it comes to managing your son or daughter’s gaming habits. Studies have proven that access is a huge factor. Kids with gaming consoles in their bedrooms were exponentially more likely to use at higher rates and much later into the night. Here are a few things to consider:

• Where is your gaming console located? Consider keeping it out of bedrooms and out of the basement if possible. It is easier to retreat for endless time when you’re tucked away in a bedroom or basement.

• How much gaming or screen time is allowed? While most professionals suggest limiting gaming and screen time to one hour per day, it may not be realistic to make such a drastic cut right off the bat. Take your time and small steps towards the end goal.

• Are the child/teen’s responsibilities being upheld? Consider making gaming time a reward once all academic and household chores are completed.

• Consider discussing coping skills. We all have to learn coping skills for when we can’t do something we want to do. It may be a really good time to start helping your child practice those coping skills on their disappointment not getting to play as much as they’d like.

• Share your observations with your child. Make known to them what you have noticed about changes in behaviors or shortcomings that are unacceptable or uncharacteristic. Help them see the pervasive outcome of their gaming habit. Ask them specifically if it feels out of their control and if they need help cutting back or quitting.

• Build a network of support. The more pervasive the issue, the more of a network you may need to combat the issue. It’s okay to call in reinforcements.

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