Emily woke up at 2am after hearing a noise downstairs. Tugging nervously on the blanket, she quietly slipped out of her room in the direction of the strange sound.
Anxiety turned to anger as she approached the faint but distinct music of her sons’ favorite video game – the same game she had ordered them to stop playing a few hours earlier to go to bed.
At this point, Emily couldn’t decide whether to scream or cry, whether to lose her mind or come to her senses.
Emily unplugged the video game console, gathered up the cords and devices, climbed up to her second-floor deck, and threw hundreds of dollars worth of equipment over the railing. With a great sense of relief, she listened to the soft sound of electronics crashing downstairs. “There!” she assured herself. “That should take care of the problem.”
Emily’s reaction may seem extreme, but those who live with a child addicted to video games understand. Years later, Emily says her decision to ban video games from her home has had lasting significance: it has protected her sons from an addiction that robs countless children of real life.
An unnecessary battle?
A growing number of parents are concerned about their children’s obsession with video games. Like many parents, we resisted buying our kids video games for a while. But when a friend offered us his old console, we hesitantly accepted – determined to limit our children’s gaming time to keep it a small part of a balanced lifestyle.
However, it wasn’t long before we noticed that our once-active sons were being diverted from normal, healthy childhood activities to the digital world.
Board games stayed on the shelf. Outdoor activities declined. Even relationships with friends and family changed, dominated by discussions about games or conflicts about why they couldn’t play “just one more level.”
The struggle to limit their playing time seemed pointless. But before we threw in the towel, we decided to check out what current research says about video games. For starters, we learned that more than 20 percent of children in the United States are addicted to computer and video games, which produce physiological responses in the brain similar to those associated with substance abuse.
Research shows that the chemicals triggered by 30 minutes of gaming rival the euphoria of amphetamines. After a while, a process called “addiction” takes over, rewiring the brain and creating a physiological dependency similar to cocaine. In fact, the first detoxification center for video game addicts recently opened in the Netherlands
Avoiding common mistakes
While most conscientious parents screen games to protect their children from violent and sexual themes, few understand the dynamics that get their sons and daughters hooked on the “digital drug.” They may have a bad feeling about the influence of video games, but cannot imagine children living without this drug in a culture where all children play. What’s a parent to do?
First, educate yourself and your children about the research on video game addiction. Then, try to avoid these common mistakes:
Mistake #1: Starting young
The earlier a child starts playing electronic games, the sooner they will be exposed to the habits that lead to addiction. Children who become accustomed to junk food lose their appetite for healthy eating.
Similarly, children develop a “taste” for certain types of entertainment. Those who develop natural rather than virtual play habits are more likely to become successful and happy adolescents. Those who are introduced to the dopaminergic euphoria of prolonged video game play often miss other recreational activities.
Mistake #2: Creating easy access
Four out of five children over the age of eight own a video game console. The risk of video game addiction increases dramatically when your child owns a console, as it is much more difficult to control the amount of time spent playing. As with any other behavioural addiction, easy access to the object of obsession makes it difficult to avoid the pitfalls. To counteract this you can always install a parental control software, to limit the time of use.
Mistake #3: using video games as a reward
While the benefit of motivating children to do homework and other tasks may seem like a positive aspect of the video game obsession, the long-term consequences far outweigh the short-term gains. Using video games to motivate children reinforces the idea that working, reading, and learning are necessary evils rather than rewards in themselves. Other motivating rewards – like a date with Dad for ice cream or a night out with Mom – are more effective and avoid feeding the video game obsession.
Mistake #4: Allowing “just one more level.”
When asked to turn off their video game console, most children rarely obey without first trying to extend their game. They invariably respond with a request for an extra level or extra time to defeat the current villain. As a result, many parents end up allowing their child to spend far more time playing video games than they intended.
As one former video game addict put it, “If you say you intend to limit the amount of time the child spends, you better ask yourself if you can really do it. Kids are very good at pushing and shoving for more time.”
Mistake #5: Ignoring your instincts
Many parents have a bad feeling about how much time their child spends playing and talking about video games. They have a nagging feeling that spending so much time playing video games may have long-term consequences. But they question this sentiment, calling it old-fashioned or too strict. In addition, they prefer to avoid the inevitable conflicts that come with restricting or removing the game console.
You know your child better than anyone; trust your intuition and step in to help your child live a fulfilling life.