I’m sure if you have ever played a computer game or console game you know that they can be great fun and a handy distraction. Like anything fun in the history of humankind, though, there is the potential for life to get out of balance if too much of our time is dedicated to one source of enjoyment. Until they are old enough to curb urges and delay gratification (jobs linked to the brain’s cortex), children need parents to act as their cortex. Until children fully develop a cortex of their own they need limits set on their exposure to all things that might compete with living a happy and healthy life – they need some limits on gaming time.
In all of the years I have been in clinical and forensic practice with young people, I have never seen a young offender who has been convicted of a violent crime solely because they played too many computer or console games. Child development is much more complex than that! However there is perhaps a more frequent or common concerning trend and that is where gaming starts to interrupt a happy, healthy and social life for the individual or their family.
The children I have seen who have developed problematic gaming patterns have usually done so because there’s something else that’s not-quite-right in their life. Sadly, sometimes there are a many very-not-right things.
Among families who have presented to me with a child (primary, secondary school or uni student age) with gaming issues, there are some common themes. The children usually declare that they are not being heard or getting a say and sometimes there is a lack of respect or the recognition of needs between family members.
Similar to adults with internet and gaming issues, children can retreat to the gaming sphere to avoid unpleasant feelings or happenings in their lives.
Children retreating to games might be avoiding family conflict or other strong feelings like grief, loneliness, family separation or hurt from bullying, troubles with learning, or lacking a sense of achievement (at school or with friends).
Then, there are the children who just find it hard to comply with requests to turn the game off. Children will always find it difficult to move from an activity they are enjoying to a less-preferred activity. Playing a game is way more fun than cleaning your teeth and getting ready for bed.
Some children who are more oppositional will always find it tough and may need additional incentives to keep the household gaming rules and limits.
It is rare (in fact it has never happened in any of my clients) that a child complains about having too much time for gaming. I am loathe to suggest a set dosage rate for gaming time, but I’m happy to suggest it should be negotiated. When talking about limits to gaming, tell the child how their time on the computer affects you and other people. Depending upon the age of your child, it’s important to assist them to understand their priorities (school work, music, chores, pets, siblings, friends, sleep) and help them to make a balanced decision about how much time would be a healthy amount of time and which days might be best. Sometimes it can be handy to draw up a simple calendar and purchase a timer. Younger children may need a timer set – with a five minute warning so they have time to save their advances.
Once you impose restrictions, don’t cave in or make threats – just follow through with regard to the times you have set. There will be most resistance at the start of the limits while they are being tested to see how wobbly they might be. You will likely here how “unfair” it is, how they are the “only” child who has those limits in their class and how “bored” they will be. Stick to your plan. Indeed, think about having, at least, one day free of gaming each week or times where, maybe on holiday, there is a longer computer-game-free zone.
When you are limiting gaming time for your children, be sure you also limit it for the adults in the household as well. Make sure that when you are with your child, that you are with your child and not just sitting next to them while you play or check messages on your phone or other portable device.
Be firm about computer and console game time and content limits, but be interested in the themes, characters and goals of their games.
Try to find out what it is they love about the game.
Many of the primary aged children I see would love for their parents to play on the games with them or at least to know some of the characters so that they understand why they are excited or disappointed after having played on a game for a time. Also, if you know what games most interest a child, it becomes easier to suggest a real world equivalent way of pursuing this interest.
Encourage and help children to:
- build up alternative recreation options
- meet up with friends face to face
- share meals – maybe even help to cook
- get to bed at a good hour
- take part in family life
- explore art, books, music or even homework
Computer or console gaming is just one way of millions that everyone can enjoy their free time, but it is no fun when issues about accessing computer and console games become a battleground. All children need limits and everyone needs balance. Keeping an eye out for things that might be making a child seek out more than usual game time, modelling negotiation and problem solving around accessing games provide the best chance for peaceful solutions.
Keep an eye out for the next Big Hug book, “The Internet is Like A Puddle”. It will be available in Australia from early January 2015. Ask your favourite bookstore.
Parents and Carers – While it is tempting to use computer games as baby sitters, it is really important that someone responsible looks over the child’s shoulder from time to time while they play. Set up gaming devices in a more public area in your home. This also lets you check whether your child is playing “on line”, with strangers or with people that you know.
Teachers – Keep an eye out if a child looks repeatedly sleepy in class or if the content of all of their writing and socialising seems game-themed. Whilst gaming may often be one of the limited interest sets of a student who has an autism spectrum concerns, if you see a change in the child over time, be sure to feedback what you have noticed to the student’s parents or carers. Encourage children to spend time in groups that do not necessarily share a gaming interest and encourage their development and involvement in non-gaming activities and themes.
Psychologists and Helpers – It is often the parents who will present a child with internet addiction issues. It is rare for the young person to acknowledge any problems the first time they are dragged along for a treatment session. Keep an eye out for depression, impulsivity, sensation seeking, social anxiety and attention issues as well as getting a good sense of the family and friendship dynamics. Kimberly Young and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu have edited a fabulous book titled “Internet Addiction: A Handbook Guide to Evaluation and Treatment” (published by Wiley in 2011) and if you are regularly seeing children or adults with internet or gaming issues, this is a great resource.
Kids – While it is fun to spend lots of time playing games on the computer or console, when people tell you to stop playing, there usually have very good reasons. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like you are being listened to when someone tells you that you can’t have anymore of something that you love. Stay cool. See if you can make a deal with the adults and then be very careful to keep your side of the deal. When kids get stuck or bogged on just one area of fun, it can start to take over their lives. Make sure you exercise all of your “fun muscles”, not just the gaming ones.