When you think about the amount of time that your child spends playing video games do the words “obsession” and “addiction” come to mind? Do you fear for your child’s physical and mental health? Is this an issue that keeps you awake at night? This is THE hot topic among parents that I talk to. It generates a huge amount of stress for parents and conflict in families. It’s a big topic and one that is beyond the scope of one post so I am going to focus on one key issue; the fear of gaming addiction.
At the heart of this fear of addiction is the belief that there is something about gaming itself that has the capacity to overwhelm free will and draw a child into a pattern of behaviour that is genuinely harmful. This belief places the child in the role of victim and assumes that the game (or gaming in general) is inherently dangerous. This belief fits comfortably with dominant beliefs in our society about the dangers of other addictive activities and substances. We either fear the activity or substance or we fear that we have an inherent weakness (such as a genetic predisposition) that makes us susceptible to it’s dangers. Either way, if you are believing that something is inherently harmful the most common reaction is to try and control and limit it. Placing time limits on video gaming is considered a responsible practice by many parents for this reason. Some parents take the next step and ban gaming altogether.
What if gaming was not the problem, but rather part of the solution?
What if limiting gaming actually increases the likelihood of compulsive gaming and its negative side effects?
I believe that there is a great deal of confusion about the nature of addiction and compulsive behaviour. I have been trying to figure it out for a long time. My childhood was influenced by the heavy consumption of alcohol by people around me. The side effects of their alcohol use on my life were not pleasant. As an adult I gradually developed my own compulsive behaviours and attracted some partners who struggled with substance use. Learning how to deal with these issues has been a big theme in my life. I used to see myself as a victim of addiction/compulsion but my understanding has changed.
I now understand that addiction is an attempt to escape from emotional pain and suffering. As Dr Gabor Maté puts it “All the substances of abuse are actually painkillers……Addiction is always about pain.” It’s about doing or consuming something to try and distract or escape from underlying issues of self-hatred, low self-worth or unresolved “stuck” feelings such as fear, grief, helplessness or rage. It can also be an escape from stress, boredom or feelings of powerlessness. It’s not about the substance or activity, it’s about how you feel inside.
There is another confusion about addiction that has taken me ages to tease apart. How come so many of the things that can be used or done compulsively are also things that are desirable or fun? Think yummy food, chocolate, sex, a drink with friends, shopping, gambling and work; they can all be desired and enjoyed in moderation by some people and become the focus of compulsive behaviour in others. Perhaps it is because they have the capacity to bring pleasure and excitement to life that they are used as a form of self-medication by some people. The key difference between a positive desire for something and an addiction or compulsion is the attitude or mindset of the person doing it. It is possible to be passionate, enthralled and deeply absorbed in something, even to the extent of it taking up a large part of your waking hours, and experience no negative side effects. And yet, if the same activity is undertaken with the mindset of escaping or dulling emotional pain then the results can be very different.
Playing video games involves a heady cocktail of positive emotions and experiences. In a recent article in Slate Jane McGonigal emphasizes the significance of play in people’s lives. She notes that the opposite of “play” is not “work,” as many people assume, but rather depression: “Most people tend to experience stronger self-confidence, increased physical energy, and powerful positive emotions, like curiosity and excitement, during play. This is a perfect contrast to depression.” She explains that video games are a form of play that hyper-stimulates the brain, particularly in the areas associated with motivation/goals and memory/learning. This is why they are so appealing and it is also why they can be so beneficial for children. Video games are challenging, exciting and fun and stretch our skills and capacities.They are often visually amazing, full of engrossing narrative and highly original. I have written more about the benefits for children of this form of play here.
A game like Minecraft is rich in all these elements and that is why it is so very, very desired and loved by children. Minecraft can also be adapted, modified and used in ways that make it infinitely customisable to each child’s particular interests and skill set. My 14 year old son who has been an avid gamer since he was 6 says; “Minecraft encourages creativity and imagination. Playing it a lot and enjoying it isn’t a bad thing.” After years of observing him pursuing his passion for gaming, through Minecraft and well beyond, I certainly agree. I have seen him blossom in confidence, resilience, learning and social skills. I couldn’t ask for a happier teenager.
When you consider the issue from this perspective it becomes clear that well-meaning attempts by parents to control or restrict access to video games can increase the likelihood of compulsive gaming or other troublesome behaviours. These are the reasons why:
- Blocked desire can cause immense frustration. Playing games can be frustrating for children at times (particularly if they are at the leading edge of their skills) but being told to stop when they are in the middle of exciting gameplay is much worse. A parent imposing limits or banning games can lead to strong feelings of anger and powerlessness. If unresolved, these feelings could bring on a pattern of compulsive behaviour in an attempt to soothe the child’s distress.
- The conflict between parent and child arising out of attempts to control can be very traumatic for all concerned and can erode the closeness and trust in the parent-child relationship. When this trust is eroded children are less likely to turn to their parent for help when they face challenges. They are also less likely to open up and express their feelings in a way that enables them to clear their distress and release the energy of their negative emotions.
- The child has less opportunity to engage in activity that they find stimulating, fun and exciting. Recent psychology research suggests that both the appeal and well-being effects of video games are based in their potential to satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Instead of being harmful, video gaming can be seen as an important way to help children practice real and meaningful skills. While a child is having fun and playing a game with a positive mindset it can’t help but be good for them. Why deny your child this opportunity for learning and feeling good?
- When parents send the message to their child that video games are a waste of time, harmful or serve no useful purpose they are conditioning their children to change their mindset from a positive to a negative one. Jane McGonigal explains that this can cause children become more likely to see games as an escape from reality rather than a meaningful part of their lives. The mindset of the parent is a crucial element in the way children will relate to gaming.
So what should anxious parents do?
A good place to start would be a conversation with your child about why so much of their time is spend playing video games. One suggestion is to ask your child straight out “Are you playing these games as an escape or are you having fun?” If they say that they are having fun, just relax and spend some time talking to them about what they enjoy about their games. Ask them about the skills they have developed while playing their games. The more you engage with your child and observe the learning and resilience they are picking up through this form of play, the more positive your own attitude will become.
If your child lets you know that they are playing as an escape from their daily life, be grateful that you now have this information and can do something to help them. Instead of limiting their gaming, the best thing you can do to help your child is to start playing with them. If you think you can handle the learning curve and the challenge ask if you can play a multiplayer video game alongside your child. Get involved, build a closer connection and give yourself the opportunity to see the game from your child’s perspective. As I explain in my new book “Joyful Parenting,” playing with your child can be a great way to help them resolve their own problems. The most helpful kind of adult-child play is when the child is in the lead, can choose the type of play and can demonstrate their skills. In my experience, there is nothing better than video games for putting parents at a natural disadvantage. My children find my incompetence immensely amusing and they love the power-reversal play that I encourage during our gaming sessions. The closeness developed through this kind of play opens up wonderful opportunities for a child to bring up issues that are troubling them.
The other obvious thing to do if your child is using gaming as an escape is to look for ways to make the rest of their life less stressful and more fun. If there are problems that need to be addressed there are ways of doing this that are both supportive and empowering for children and parents. Joyful Parenting focuses on skills for solving family problems and moving from conflict to closer connection.
And finally, if you are worried and stressed do whatever you can to change your mindset and your attitude to gaming and to addiction. Question your thinking. See things from your child’s perspective. Read more widely and listen to your fears less. Your mindset and your well-being is important, both for you and your child.