For decades parents and the media have worried about the effects of video game violence on children and teens (even when the in-game graphics for blood amounted to little more than pixilated red squares).
Although concerns about the effects of violent video games remain, it is possible that parents today should be more concerned about video game addiction than the portrayal of violence in the games.
Although experts sometimes disagree about the exact percentage of kids who become gaming addicts, most studies estimate the rate to be from five to ten percent of active online gamers.
Because video game addiction is a relatively new phenomenon parents may not have accurate information on the telltale symptoms of unhealthy levels of play, why some video games are more addictive than others, who is most likely to develop problematic gaming habits, and how to address the addiction after it develops.
Although researchers and psychologists are rapidly learning more about predicting, assessing, and treating computer game addiction, there remains a considerable amount of misinformation and confusion about this very real problem of the digital age.
Before attempting to help a child or teen addicted to video games, parents should keep the following ten points in mind.
1. As of this writing, video game addiction, computer addiction, and internet addiction are not psychiatric diagnoses. The possible inclusion of these terms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has been debated for many years, but for now they remain unofficial labels, not clinical disorders.
2. Because there is no official diagnosis of video game addiction, there is no specific period of gaming hours per day that indicates “addiction.” Obviously though, the more a child plays, the more likely it is that his or her unhealthy habits are excessive and need to be changed. In addition to determining the typical number of gaming hours per week, it may be more important for psychologists to assess the extent to which gaming is affecting a child’s academic, social, and relational functioning.
3. Even though the majority of children and teens can play video games without becoming addicted, there are certainly those who play far too much. For these individuals, gaming becomes the number one priority in life and development in the real world is sacrificed for advancement in the virtual world. Whether this is called an “addiction” is largely irrelevant. Excessive, unhealthy levels of play while ignoring school, other activities, and real-world friends is a problem that needs to be addressed.
4. If parents are concerned that their child is playing games too much and ignoring other important activities, they should not assume that this is simply a phase and that the child will “grow out of it.” Although some children and teens do move on from video games, there are others who play even more as the years go by. Hoping that the problem takes care of itself is not a recommended strategy. Excessive gameplay should be addressed as soon as it is clear that it is significantly interfering with other important areas of the child’s life.
5. As a general rule, successful interventions almost always include the removal of any gaming consoles or computers from the child’s room. It is very difficult for parents to regain control of their child’s gaming habits if there is still access to the game in his or her room.
6. If video game addiction has resulted in school grades that are significantly below what a child is capable of, parents must be prepared to put very tight restrictions on games or ban them entirely until grades improve. It is absolutely essential that any threat to restrict access is enforced – actions must always be consistent with words.
7. If parents choose to seek help from a psychologist or mental health professional, it is recommended that they met with him or her before the child’s first appointment. Despite rapidly growing evidence that video game addiction is a real problem that deserves focused interventions, there are mental health professionals who remain very skeptical and will always look for the “underlying issue” instead. Parents should make sure that the psychologist or therapist they choose is at least willing to directly treat excessive video game habits if necessary. Which brings us to the next point…
8. Sometimes there is an underlying issue. Video game addiction can exist independently of other mental health conditions. But excessive play can also cause other psychological and emotional difficulties…and be caused by other psychological issues. For example, a teen that is experiencing low self-esteem or depression may turn to online video games as a way to retreat from problems in the real world. In this scenario, it would be important to address not only the problematic gaming, but also the depressed mood and low self-esteem.
9. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is generally the recommended treatment approach for video game addiction that is not the result of a deeper underlying issue. A therapist treating excessive gaming with CBT will focus on challenging unhealthy and unrealistic thoughts the client may have about gaming (for example, that “everyone plays as much as I do”) and designing clear behavioral interventions to help the parents reduce the total gaming time to acceptable levels.
10. Parents should never give up on their children. Video game addiction can be very strong and extremely reluctant to go away, but it can be successfully treated with the proper information, strategies for reduction, and professional interventions.