Video games are often a hot topic debated between older and younger generations. Occasionally we’ll hear news about video games being linked to real-life violence, but another area of concern is about addiction to video games.
Many parents will know the joys and perils related to their children playing video games. Some parents find that tablets and phones with pre-loaded video games can be handy in keeping a restless child at bay, but many other parents (particularly of older children) will lament the frustration of an “addicted” child – avoiding chores, rarely leaving their bedroom and staying up late on school nights to play video games with friends.
It can be difficult for parents to know if their child’s video game “obsession” is an issue or if it’s perfectly fine and normal, but there are some indicators and tactics to help.
Why does my child play video games so often?
There are many factors that make video games a fun and rewarding experience. Many online video games offer the opportunity to play, chat and coordinate with friends, making it a fun social experience – this is often what keeps people coming back to play games on a regular basis.
The video games themselves, whether online or not, provide rewarding experiences by providing incentives to continue playing, and rewarding the player with these incentives after they have completed specified missions or actions within the game. This can provide a sense of accomplishment or gratification, and can therefore become addictive – but more on this later!
Playing video games can also be used as an “escape” or as a means to wind down and relax. People experiencing loneliness or mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, have been observed to form a reliance or addiction to video games as a means to ease symptoms.
But ultimately, games are MADE to be fun and addictive. Providing a challenge, a sense of purpose or accomplishment, and a chance to explore a new, creative world makes video games an activity that people want to keep coming back to. You may be surprised to hear that some of the world’s highest-paid psychologists actually work in video game production (and in other digital/technological fields such as social media and marketing) to help game developers create a game that people want to keep coming back to.
Why are video games addictive?
When you enjoy something in life, it is natural to want more of it. In fact, when we experience pleasure we form neural pathways to the reward centre in our brain, which releases dopamine into our system and gives us feelings of happiness.
This dopamine high is addictive, and so naturally, we keep going back for more. If a person is struggling to find a sense of happiness or accomplishment in their lives, that neural pathway to the reward centre in their brain may become dominant, making video gaming (something they enjoy) the dominant or only pathway to pleasure. This is when an addiction can form.
Is my child addicted to gaming?
This really depends on what you consider to be an addiction. The word “addiction” generally implies that the obsession is having an adverse effect on the life or lives of others.
You might find your child’s obsessive video gaming habits to be frustrating, but this in itself is not enough to establish that they have an addiction. So, what are the indicators of video game addiction?
Joanne Orlando, Researcher of Technology and Learning at Western Sydney University*, explains that a child may be addicted to video games if they are:
- prioritising video gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other activities and interests
- and continuing to game despite negative effects on work, school, family life, health, hygiene, relationships, finances or social relationships.
Our own CatholicCare counsellor who specialises in addictions, Gerard Koe, points out another key indicator of video game addiction - withdrawal symptoms.
If your child is showing symptoms of anxiety, aggression, irrationality or depression after withdrawing from video games (whether it is forced upon them or not), this is a good indicator that they have become addicted. Your child may also resist or fight with those who threaten to reduce or completely remove opportunities for them to play video games.
If your child is addicted to video games, these games may be the only activity giving them that dopamine high – and therefore the only activity where they can achieve a sense of happiness. Withdrawing from playing video games can therefore lead to negative mood changes, such as aggression and depression.
How do I stop my child from playing games?
It is important to note that spending an excessive amount of time playing video games is not bad in itself, as long as your child is maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle – eating well, exercising, getting adequate sleep and participating in other interests and activities. But if video games are taking precedence over a healthy lifestyle, over a long period of time (say 6-12 months), then it might be time to seek help.
While your ideal may be to stop your child from playing video games altogether, it is more important to focus on the root of the problem.
If your child is lonely, if they’re experiencing anxiety, depression or bullying, or if they’re not finding joy or happiness through any other means, addressing these issues will often have flow-on effects to problematic video gaming.
But how do you know what is driving their obsession to play?
The answer is simple – ask.
Depending on your relationship with your child, asking them upfront may not yield good results, but if you start to show an interest in their gaming they may eventually open up on their thoughts and feelings. You can start by asking things like:
- What games have you been playing? Are they fun?
- Were you playing [insert game name here] with friends today? What are your friends’ names?
- What is that game about? What do you do in it?
You could then progress to asking questions such as:
- How does it make you feel when you play [insert game name here]?
- I’ve noticed you play games quite a lot, what do you get out of it?
Once you feel that they are talking openly and seem at ease when discussing their video gaming activities, this is when you can approach them about your concerns. It is important to talk about your observations, rather than accusing them of anything. An example of this might be: “It seems like you really enjoy playing video games, but I’ve noticed you seem down whenever you’re not playing. Is there anything you’d like to talk about – are you okay? I’m here to listen if you need me.”
A simple conversation like this can open opportunities for your child to talk about their mental health or things that are worrying them. From here, you may be able to work through issues together and even come to an agreement on limiting their time playing video games, to use the extra time on other necessary or enjoyable activities.
But if you can’t work through this together, or if you are worried about their mental health, it is recommended to seek professional help from a doctor or counsellor.
Find a CatholicCare counsellor near you.
*Article on childrens' addiction to video games | The Conversation