Is your son addicted to video games?
Parents need to distinguish between too much time playing video games and serious addiction
Jacob was 22 when his parents brought him to see me at the office. He still lived at home and only worked a few hours a week, helping with his father’s renovation business. His parents were concerned about Jacob’s complete lack of ambition.
He had no employment except for the casual labor provided by his father, no education beyond high school, no interest in pursuing any education – professional or otherwise – and no plans for the future. He played video games at least 40 hours a week, the equivalent of a full-time job.
“Tell me about your best friends,” I asked.
“I have dozens of them. Where do you want me to start? Jacob answered.
“Just tell me the names of three of your best friends,” I replied.
“Well, there’s Jonathan,” Jacob said.
“When did you last see Jonathan?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen Jonathan,” Jacob said. “He lives in Singapore. He’s in my World of Warcraft guild.
“When was the last time you had a friend over? I asked.
“Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. The virtual world isn’t as good as the real world, is it? said Jacob.
“Well, yes,” I said. “I think real-world relationships are more important than relationships that only exist online or in a virtual world.”
Jacob spent way too much time playing video games. The games had crowded out everything else.
“The only effective intervention in this context is complete abstinence,” I tell his parents. “You need to eliminate Jacob’s access to video games. Remove the Xbox from the house. Destroy it or give it away. Eliminate all internet access, including cell phone.
Jacob’s blank expression changed to a scowl.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “I am an adult. I am over 18 years old. You can’t tell me what to do! My parents can’t tell me what to do.
“It’s true,” I replied. “You are an adult. You are free to leave your parents’ house. But if you leave,” and then I glanced at the parents, “your parents shouldn’t support you. Right now you are living in your parents’ house, but you are not paying rent. They pay for your food and internet access. If you are going to stay in their house, you have to follow their rules.
Video games have been around for half a century. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Atari’s release of Pong, the first video game to go viral. But 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, it would have been rare to find a boy who neglected all other aspects of his life to play. Now it’s becoming mainstream.
Jacob’s story is extreme, but I hear of many boys – and it’s almost always boys, not girls – who neglect their schoolwork and social life to stay in their room with the door closed, headphones on the headset and the controller in hand playing their Games. The games are too good.
If you invest 40 hours or more to master an immersive role-playing game such as Red Dead Redemption 2, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something when you’re done, something meaningful and substantial. The boys tell me it’s much more satisfying than studying Spanish or American history.
Some boys are more at risk: The lonely or socially excluded boy is more at risk of turning to violent video games and becoming more aggressive, according to recent to research. The link between violent video games and aggressive behavior may be controversialbut a recent study suggests that there may be an even stronger link between violent video games and cyberaggression. Even though the boy who kills enemies online in Grand Theft Auto 5 isn’t more likely to hurt people in real life, he may be more likely to engage in acts of aggression online.
As a family physician, I have been concerned for many years with boys and video games. In 2007 I wrote a book titled “Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Behind the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men”. Video games are one of those five factors, and they’re the factor most often involved when a boy really falls off the track, like Jacob did. More recently I wrote an updated second edition of “Boys Adrift” because things have only gotten worse.
With my encouragement, Jacob’s parents followed my instructions. They donated the Xbox and all of its video games to Goodwill. They removed the computer from his room. They password protected their own computer and denied their son access to it.
Four weeks later they were back as I requested.
“It’s amazing, the difference,” said his father. “At work, for example. Before, I had to pull teeth for Jacob to help me, and I had to check everything he did. Now he shows initiative and he does the job better than me.
Her mother said, “It wasn’t easy. Not at the start. Jacob didn’t talk to us at all for the first week. He made his own meals and brought them to his room. But then, after about a week, he started joining us for supper. And he just seemed to wake up. It was as if he had been in a fog all those years of playing video games. Maybe he just wasn’t getting enough sleep. Now he actually talks at supper time.
His dad said, “He just seems smarter now. He understands better. He has a better attention span. He has more patience.
“What do you think?” I asked Jacob. “Do you agree?”
“No, I don’t know,” Jacob replied. “I don’t feel any different. Not smarter, that’s for sure.
“If it were up to you, would you start playing video games again tomorrow?” ” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Jacob said.
Her parents sighed.
Jacob showed no insight. He had no awareness of how video games had replaced real-world activities in his life.
How to tell if your son is addicted to video games
Scholars to disagree whether video game addiction is its own psychiatric diagnosis. But as a family doctor, I have seen that some children, especially boys, are really addicted. What’s the difference between simply spending too much time playing video games and becoming addicted to them? The Mayo Clinic suggests several key signs that your child is becoming addicted to video games:
- Displacement: If video games displace your child’s social life or if homework is not done because your child spends too much time playing video games, this can be a sign of video game addiction.
- Lying: If your child lies to you saying they haven’t played video games when they have, it’s often a sign of addiction.
- Anger/irritability: If your child gets angry, irritable, or anxious when you set reasonable limits on video games, it could be a sign of addiction.
- Escalation: If your child is spending more and more time playing video games, this suggests the possibility of addiction.
It is important for parents to distinguish between their children who spend too much time playing video games and those who have a serious addiction. If a child is addicted to video games, then the only solution that really works, in my experience, is abstinence. This means removing the game console from the house and giving away all the games.
Tips for the Boy Who Just Needs Boundaries
But what if a child spends too much time playing video games, but hasn’t lied about it or got angry about not being allowed to play and accepted the need limits? This kid is not really a drug addict. I dedicate two chapters of “Boys Adrift” to presenting the research on this topic and making evidence-based recommendations, but here’s a summary for the boy who needs limits but isn’t an addict:
- No more than 40 minutes per night on school nights playing video games and no more than an hour per day on weekends.
- The minutes do not pass. If he goes three weeks without playing video games, that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to binge for seven hours on a Saturday. It’s binge-gaming, and it’s harmful.
- Do not allow video games where the player is rewarded for killing. No Grand Theft Auto. No call of duty. This requires parents to know the content of the games their son is playing. Of course, busy parents don’t have time to spend hours watching their son play every game, so I recommend common sense media for this purpose. Simply type in the name of the game and the web page provides an accurate summary and the age range the game is suitable for.
If your son spends too much time playing video games but isn’t addicted, explain to him the need for limits and implement the limits I recommended above. If you need encouragement on how to set boundaries in an authoritative way – how to be “just right but not too harsh” – then I humbly suggest you read my book“The Collapse of Parenthood.”
If your son is addicted to video games, don’t wait for him to show insight into his situation. I have seen many parents who expect their 11, 15 or 24 year old son to act logically based on evidence they find compelling. Parents will say, “Look how long video games take up in your life. See how your friendships have faded since you started spending 20 hours a week in front of a screen. See how tired you are all the time except when playing the game!
The problem is that your child may not be aware of these harms.
Do not wait. You may be waiting months or even years. If your son is one of the millions of boys who have allowed video games to replace everything else in their lives, you need to act decisively. If you don’t, who will?
This article was originally published on the Institute of Family Studies Blog.