Game on! It’s a fun expression used to indicate that a game or competition is about to begin. But when the game is almost always on – literally – you may be facing more than just your child’s fun and games. Video game addiction is nothing to smile about – especially when it affects your kids. Yet it’s so mainstream that gaming disorder is now considered an official mental health condition officially added to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
According to the World Health Organization, gaming disorder is defined as “a pattern of gaming behavior (digital gaming or video gaming) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” Individuals with gaming disorder show a pattern of behavior that significantly impairs personal, social, educational, occupational, or other important aspects of their lives for at least 12 months. It’s most prevalent among males aged 12 – 20, but anyone can experience it.
Most likely, your kids aren’t suffering from full-blown gaming disorder at this point. But even if they don’t quite fit the diagnosis criteria, they might be on that screen-studded path toward video game addiction. It’s a slippery slope. In moderation, video games can be fun – and even educational, helping improve memory, logic, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving skills. But too much screen time can lead to a host of ‘Mortal Kombat-sized’ problems, including behavioral issues; poor sleep habits; social isolation; eye, neck, and back strain; anxiety; depression; difficulties at school…the list goes on.
Beyond The Screen
If you’ve read this far, you might be concerned that video games are demanding too much of your child’s focus. Does he spend most of his free time in a zombie-like trance playing Fortnite instead of experiencing important milestones like forming interpersonal relationships and participating in live group interactions? Is she falling behind on her schoolwork while mastering Minecraft?
Check out these eight ways to help your children fight video game addiction – and get them to focus less on their virtual lives and more on their actual lives beyond the screens.
1. Establish and enforce clear and consistent limits for gaming
Your first step is to come to an agreement, as a family, on when and where video games can be played. Determining the appropriate amount of screen time for your children is a personal decision. But because we live in a digital world where most of us have instant access to screens 24/7, setting those limits can be challenging – especially when kids use phones and computers for schoolwork, socialization, and video games.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting total entertainment screen time to no more than two hours per day for tweens and teens and discourages any screen time or video game exposure for children aged two or younger. The organization’s parenting website, healthychildren.org, offers an opportunity to create your own family media plan. Take comfort in knowing that your plan isn’t set in stone, and can be reevaluated and adjusted as necessary (especially as your kids grow, assume wider responsibilities, and require more flexibility).
Another important way to set limits is to require permission to purchase or download new games. Most consoles allow you to request an adult’s password in order to purchase a new game (this should go without saying: keep that password private). If online purchases are set to your credit card, be sure to question and discuss with your child any unexpected video game purchases.
2. Manage your children’s game and screen time (and set a good example)
Now that you’ve set limits, it’s time to guide your kids to make the right choices. Remove temptation by not allowing video game consoles in their bedrooms, and make sure they turn off their phones before going to sleep. You may even want to consider not permitting phones in their bedrooms overnight at all. And, of course: no cell phones or video games at the dinner table. Be sure to model healthy screen time by following the rules yourself, never using your phone while driving, and ‘unplugging’ daily to be present with your family.
Let your children know that playing video games – just like any other recreational activity – is only allowed after they complete their homework and other responsibilities. Agree on how much time you want your children to spend playing video games, and get them to commit to it. Ideally, they will self-regulate with little more than an occasional parental nudge to keep them on track.
When all else fails…most devices capable of playing video games – including smartphones and video game consoles – have parental controls. Although controls vary between devices, all allow you to set screen time limits. One caveat: Most experts discourage total surveillance and control, as too-strict limits can backfire. If you choose to use parental controls, talk to your kids and let them know it’s to keep them safe and ensure responsible use of screen time.
3. Monitor your children by remaining aware of what they’re playing and who they’re interacting with online
This can be a double-edged sword, as children – especially teens – want and value their privacy. Sometimes there’s a fine line between monitoring and snooping, but their safety and well-being are paramount. Familiarize yourself with the games your kids are playing, be aware of who they’re playing with, and set rules about the types of games they can and cannot play.
For younger kids and teens, steer clear of video games rated ‘M’ for Mature (intended for ages 17 and older) or ‘AO’ (Adults Only – 18 and older). Instead, encourage age-appropriate video games including strategy games and fun – but not potentially emotionally scarring – action and adventure games (National Geographic Challenge, anyone?). That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mindless entertainment every now and then. Your kids will want to play what their friends are playing, and that’s ok. But maintaining a vigilant parental presence will help ensure that your children aren’t playing inappropriate games with extreme violence, foul language, or sexual content.
Not sure where to start? The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit self-regulatory body for the video game industry, allows you to search its game ratings database to help you make informed choices about the video games your kids want to play. It also offers a variety of helpful tools including information and resources to set up parental controls, a family gaming guide, and informative blogs.
4. Encourage other interests and hobbies
Some children resort to video games when they’re bored, and gaming can make them feel like they’re not alone. Many video games even have an interactive, social component. Kids can be by themselves at home, yet interact in real-time with a friend down the street, classmates – or even their cousins in another state. Make it clear that this type of interaction isn’t a replacement for actual social interaction. Encourage your kids to explore other hobbies, engage in physical activity, enjoy extracurricular activities, and meet with friends face-to-face on a regular basis.
5. Don’t ignore your gut instincts – and do consider potential underlying issues
Most children – and even many adults – play video games. But if you have a nagging sense that your child is spending too much time gaming, don’t second-guess yourself. Talk to your children, and encourage them to discuss their emotions and experiences. Ask them what they like most about playing video games, and why they choose to spend so much time playing. Their answers can help you determine if they might be using video games as an escape from anxiety, depression, or other potential issues.
6. Embrace your children’s passion for video games
As the expression goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Sometimes, showing an interest in something your children are passionate about helps you connect to and better understand more about their interests. It can also help you model a healthy relationship with video games by demonstrating when to stop playing, by prioritizing social interaction, by pursuing other interests and activities, and by showing them how video games can fit into a well-balanced life.
7. Create – and consistently follow through with – consequences when your child breaks the rules (and make sure the punishment fits the crime)
Now that you’ve established the rules, expect your children to break them – at least occasionally. Kids will be kids, after all. Make sure your children understand both the rules and the consequences for breaking them, and ensure that the consequences are realistic and appropriate. For example, refusing to let your son attend his long-awaited Boy Scout camporee because he played too much Super Mario Bros. wouldn’t be as applicable (or effective) as revoking his video game privileges for a few days. Be consistent by always following through (and don’t let the consequences slide when you’re busy or distracted) so he knows he can’t manipulate his way into more game time.
8. Consult a mental health professional
If you’ve tried everything and your child still shows signs of video game addiction, it may be time to seek professional help. Warning signs might include a child’s complete immersion in video games to the point that he seems oblivious to the passage of time, skips meals and showers, falls behind in school, isn’t getting enough sleep, and isolates himself to play games with random strangers instead of spending time engaging with friends.
Consulting with your child’s guidance counselor or a behavior or addiction therapist can help you determine the best options for your child. In some cases, parents may consider a residential treatment center or therapeutic boarding school specializing in helping students overcome addiction, including issues with video gaming. These programs provide nurturing support and help students make positive changes in their lives.
Staying Ahead of The Game
With appropriate limits and resources, playing video games can be a fun activity for the whole family. But, when all is said and done, your children should understand that having their own electronic devices, like cell phones and video gaming systems (or even having access to them), is a privilege – not a right. And, like all privileges, they must be earned.
When screen time and video gaming become excessive to the point where you’re suspecting a potential addiction, that privilege is being abused and it’s time to step in. That doesn’t necessarily mean “Game Over.” Keep an open dialogue and let your children know you’re speaking from a place of love and concern, rather than of control. By working together, you can ‘stay ahead of the game’ to help your children create a positive video game experience now, and in the future.
Struggling with a potential video game addiction in your home? JRA Educational Consulting will connect you with the best-fit educational and therapeutic resources to get your children – and your family – back on track.