When I was a child growing up in the 80s, video games were not a big part of my life. Occasionally I’d take a turn on my BFF’s Nintendo and play Super Mario Bros., or I’d put a quarter in the Ms. Pac Man game at Pizza Hut, but that’s about it. Some of my friends had Ataris, too, but we never did. In those days you often had to leave the house and go to an arcade just to play a video game, but now, when most homes have at least one video game system, if not more, plus the capability for online gaming, kids are spending more and more time playing video games, and video game addiction is totally a THING. Like, officially.
Video game addiction has been classified as an official mental disorder by the World Health Organization.
Now, there are plenty of avid video game players, like my 14-year-old son, who do NOT qualify as video game addicts. These people may enjoy gaming as a hobby and spend plenty of time doing it, but they don’t allow it to interfere with their social, school, or professional lives and relationships.
According to the World Health Organizations guidelines, you have video game addiction if you “experience significant impairment in personal, family, social educational, occupational or other important areas of function.”
To avoid your kiddo falling into this category, it’s important to set screen limits from the time they are little. Obviously, kids will have more autonomy as they get older, but when you set limits for them at a younger age, you teach them moderation and self-discipline, and you’re making sure they are learning to other activities such as playing outside, reading, creative/crafty play, and social play with friends. My husband loves video games, and loves playing them with our kids. However, our youngest, only seven, can only play on the weekends and is limited to three 20-minute sessions per day. Our oldest, at fourteen, can play much more than that (and does) but he also enjoys playing the drums, using the computer to compose music, being with friends, and writing fantasy stories. If we hadn’t set limits for him early on, I’m not sure his interests would be so diverse.
One set of parents learned the negative effects of too much gaming on a child the hard way, when they had to seek treatment for their 9-year old daughter’s video game addiction to Fortnite. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, the mother described how her daughter was so loath to quit playing that she would wet herself rather than stop playing to go the restroom.
“Of course we were furious and confiscated her Xbox. But then she lashed out and hit my husband in the face.
My husband saw her light on in the night and found her sitting on a urine-soaked cushion playing the game.
I found her backside was red-raw. She was so hooked to the game she wouldn’t even go to the toilet.”
She also added that her daughter had been waiting until they were asleep, then sneaking out of bed to play Fortnite all night long. This resulted in her falling asleep during class at school. “We had no idea, when we let her play the game, of the addictive nature or the impact it could have on her mental health,” her mother said. They had to put their child in an actual rehab treatment center, because her video game addiction and behavior were so unmanageable. Can you imagine having to send your child to an inpatient rehab program at just nine years old? Heartbreaking.
Parents should note that video game addiction does not just occur with “gaming systems.”
Your child doesn’t need a Nintendo or XBox to succumb to video game addiction: iPads and other tablets or phones can be just as problematic. So when you think about “screen time,” think about ALL the screens they use. I’ve seen many an eight-year-old playing Minecraft on a tablet and pleading for “just five more minutes” – research shows that too much time on a screen device can even damage your child’s brain, even if they are not addicted per se. This article from Psychology Today is particularly eye-opening and it’s “just the facts” manner does not over-sensationalize the problem, but spells out clearly that too much screen time is simply bad for ALL of us, but especially kids. In fact, video games are as addictive as a substance like alcohol or drugs. The article says,
Research on video games have shown dopamine (implicated in reward processing and addiction) is released during gaming (Koepp 1998 and Kuhn 2011) and that craving or urges for gaming produces brain changes that are similar to drug cravings (Ko 2009, Han 2011).
Um, YIKES! The article also urges the reader to “Use this research to strengthen your own parental position on screen management, and to convince others to do the same.”
Allow me to do what the article says, and try to convince you to limit screen time (particularly when it involves video games or game apps) for your child. Honestly, just one to two hours a day is PLENTY. And if you give them extra time, let it be a fun game that can be played in a group, socially, like Mario Kart, Wii Fit or Wii Sports, Rock Band, Just Dance, and similar games that keep you active. There are definitely opportunities to use gaming time in a social and positive way, but as parents we need to be intentional about making that happen and not just letting our kids spend mindless hours playing by themselves.
Are you looking for more resources on specific strategies to help your child manage screen time in a healthy way? The author of the Psychology Today article, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, has some on her website at www.drdunckley.com/videogames/. To learn more about how the physiological effects of electronics translate into symptoms and dysfunction and how to go back and reverse the negative effects of too much screen and video game time, you can also check out her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain.