Should I be concerned about childhood Gaming Addictions?
Playing games is a normal part of development for any child. With the significant improvements in video game design and interaction over the past 30 years, video games are increasingly more engaging and vivid and the number 1 form of entertainment for many children. Why? Because it engages parts of brain that releases chemical (neurotransmitters) that make us feel good. Therefore players can become drawn to seeking more and more of the nice feelings and rewarding sensations that comes with gaming, through more time gaming.
Lots of children and adults really enjoy gaming and find it a way to take a break from daily life, unwind, or engage with each other routinely. Many parents do not perceive it as a problem until significant, and undesired, emotional responses and behaviours develop that they find challenging and want support with. So managing gaming addiction is not about totally removing gaming from a family’s life in most instances, and more about restoring more helpful boundaries around gaming and device use. Encouraging other activities as alternatives to gaming is also really important, but often hard work and more time consuming for parents.
Short Term Gratification
Video games involve short term gratification loops whereby players receive constant reinforcement/reward in different forms from relatively little input. Compared to longer-term gratification tasks like building or making something, where the ‘reward’ or satisfaction of the task is not experienced until after many hours/days/weeks of effort have been exerted. With these sorts of tasks, it is also often about adults helping to model and facilitate the enjoyment of working towards a goal or end product.
How many hours of gaming is recommended for children?
There is no clear guide to how many hours a child of a certain age should spend gaming, with current screen use recommendations considered outdated and unrealistic. This article further explores the research.
Why does my child have a gaming addiction?
For many children, increased gaming or a gaming addiction, is an indication that they are experiencing a problem/s in other areas of their life. So the gaming issue can be seen as an indication of other challenges, rather than the primary issue itself. For example, gaming and technology often serve as a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and experiences in the short term that relate to anxiety. In such instances gaming would be considered the symptom, rather than the problem itself, and therefore the underlying issue needs to be worked on in addition to the gaming.
Why is gaming addiction a problem?
A significant consequence of engaging in any activity too frequently, is that the person may lose interest in, or reduce their involvement in other activities or interests that provide a sense of achievement or facilitate helpful social interactions.
Indicators of a child becoming addicted to gaming varies based on individual situations, different cultures, house rules, parenting values and personalities. Here is a list of some possible symptoms of gaming addiction. However, it should be noted that having some of these symptoms does not mean your child definitely has a gaming addiction. If you are concerned please speak to a professional for further support. Some possible symptoms include:
Psychological Signs of Video Game Addiction
- Extreme mood swings and emotional over-reactions when a child has to stop gaming, or isn’t able to play games for some reason.
- Withdrawal symptoms – when a child becomes distressed, irritable or panicked about going without gaming for a couple of days.
- Preoccupation with gaming – when gaming is the only thing the child talks about in any detail.
Physical Signs of Video Game Addiction
- Poor self-care or personal hygiene when children would prefer to avoid these tasks in lieu of gaming.
- Health conditions that develop or become worse as a lack of physical activity – eg headaches, sore eyes.
- Poor physical fitness – when a child isn’t able to walk a short distance or becomes physically fatigued after minor exertion.
Behavioral Signs of Video Game Addiction
- Declining interest in school activities.
- Loss of interest in other activities that the child used to find rewarding eg physical activities.
- Increased aggression towards others, particularly those who limit, interfere with, or prevent gaming time.
Relationship Signs of Video Game Addiction
- The child isolates him- or herself from other friends and only interacts with people online through their chosen game.
- Parents find it progressively harder to relate to their children and engage them.
- More conflict with others.
Strategies and ways to manage unhelpful patterns of gaming or addictions
The following ideas may help your family address gaming addictions within the household –
- BOTH parents sitting down with the children and discussing the challenges or costs of gaming in the household (it can be helpful to write a few ideas down to get the conversation started).
- BOTH parents sitting down together with the children and writing down (not just talking generally) a SPECIFIC plan/schedule for future gaming and technology use (with time windows and days of the week when it is permitted and under what conditions – eg AFTER homework, showers and chores are done).
- Permitting gaming time before routine tasks are completed is a common and predictable source of regular conflict for many families, so make it a family habit to do the chores BEFORE gaming.
- Try to set a good example of moderate screen use. Parents need to be mindful that although they may not be gaming themselves, they are often modelling engagement and use of technology and devices much of the time.
- Behavioural reinforcement strategies – eg that involve earning tokens, rewards or rewards charts to redeem for time gaming . This is one way of actively developing and promoting the more healthy mindset in children that gaming is a reward for regular effort and to be engaged in after other ‘more boring’ and compulsory tasks are completed. Instead of gaming as an entitlement, and every other activity can fit around it
- Use “conditional yes” instead of saying “no” to game time. The child hears “yes” instead of “no” and is more likely to undertake the conditions to get the reward. For example –
Child: “Mum can I play on the computer?”
Mum: “Yes, after you have done your homework”
- Encourage other activities, including ones your child does solo, with peers, or with family members. If your child has a choice of gaming or going on a family hike, they are likely to choose the more immediate option: gaming, so encourage them out the door. Most kids find they enjoy themselves once they are engaged away from the screen.
- If parents feel unable to manage a child’s gaming, or if they feel that there might be some challenges in other parts of the child’s life that are contributing towards excessive gaming or overuse, then parents are best advised to speak with a psychologist or mental health professional to help them understand the challenges and how best to manage the situation
- Many children will be drawn to playing video games for more and more hours if no boundaries are defined BEFORE use and expectations set. So it is important for parents to establish boundaries on when and how much time can be allowed for gaming, and discuss these with children before they play.
When to seek help for gaming addiction in children
Gaming is a popular and easily-accessible past-time for many people, both adult and child. It can be highly entertaining and rewarding, but increasing numbers of families are finding gaming is linked with difficulties in other areas of life. When gaming is taking over you or your child, or linked with unfavourable changes in behaviour, emotional wellbeing, relationships and other commitments, it may have become an addiction.
If you feel your child is having progressively more problems relating to the overuse of technology or gaming, or if you feel they have developed a gaming addiction, it can be helpful to seek professional advice from a psychologist or health professional with experience in this area
Reducing the risk of addictions or problematic patterns of gaming developing often involves a combination of scheduling appropriate and predictable times and time periods of use, adults modelling limited use of gaming and devices (setting an example) and engaging with kids in a more balanced use of free time- eg setting regular times to play other non-screen based activities with children in order to help promote their interest in those activities as an alternative to gaming.
Bianca Eastman and Steve Rushton are Child Psychologists with Changes Psychology, a mobile child psychology clinic that comes to your home, your child’s school or child care centre in Brisbane, Springfield or Ipswich. The team of child psychologists at Changes Psychology provide practical and therapeutic support for families with children aged from birth through to teens. They can help with issues such as: gaming addictions, toddler tantrums, bullying, aggressive behaviours, anxiety, sleep, learning and attention difficulties, Autism and Aspergers, parenting skills, family separations, and adjustments.
Call (07) 3062 4535, or visit changespsychology.com.au to find out more.