This post was co-authored by Elizabeth Liu and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
As termed by the World Health Organization, gaming disorder is defined as gaming that is difficult to control, prioritized over other activities, and escalating despite negatively affecting functioning. Parents of children with a video game problem can often feel hopeless and at a loss to help their kids. As gaming has become a ubiquitous activity among youth, it’s important for parents to distinguish gaming as a normal leisure activity from problematic behaviour.
Rune K. Nielsen, professor of game psychology at the IT University of Copenhagen, explains that there are often parents who are concerned because they don’t understand video games, and have heard that they are like virtual cocaine. This notion then makes them want to cut down consumption to zero. What might be the hardest thing for these parents to do is to try to put the preconceived notion that video games are inherently unhealthy aside. Conversely, there are parents with kids whose time spent gaming may be genuinely problematic. "Some concerns are extremely valid, and some are based on the same moral panic that once existed around hip hop music.”
Removing access to video games can lead to extreme emotional outbursts in children with serious gaming problems. Unplugging the router and getting rid of gaming hardware can lead to a child feeling distressed and isolated, as it prevents them from socializing with their friends online. It also takes away a comforting, distracting leisure activity that can be the only thing the child looks forward to after school. This is supported by research suggesting that some children use gaming to escape from and avoid other more painful emotional problems in the family or at school.
Nielsen elaborates that with video gaming, the game is rarely the main problem. He explains that the gaming behaviour is a symptom of something else, or a coping strategy, which a person uses to manage whatever life circumstances they’re dealing with. Nielsen says that most kids actually do want to have a balanced relationship with video games, and very few dream of a life entirely spent just playing video games.
In fact, excessive time spent playing video games could actually be a sign that there are other problems in the child’s life worth paying attention to. While gaming is a tangible behaviour that is easy to grab a hold of, the underlying problem could be figuring out how to be a family after a divorce, or how to be a family when either mom or dad is unemployed, or being bullied at school. Sometimes, viewing gaming as an individual medical problem can be a trap that prevents us from seeing it as a sign that something else is wrong.
Having a discussion with the child about the reasons behind their compulsive urge to play could be one way to help. Since most children have personal life goals outside of playing video games, parents can find ways to support their children in achieving these goals, reducing the hours they spend gaming. Parents can also create rules around video games for their kids that are sensitive to the context of the child’s video game play.
Nielsen suggests trying to devise common rules for appropriate video game playing. For example, after school, only until dinnertime, and no gaming after that. Formulate rules for the weekend. If a game takes 20 minutes, don't start the game 20 minutes before dinner. A game like World of Warcraft requires the player to be present for three hours straight, then parents and child must discuss scheduling, or whether it is too much time to invest.
Video gaming is a common leisure activity for most children and adolescents. But it can become problematic for those who spend excessive time playing and are therefore unable to do much else. To provide support, parents should recognize that their child’s video game problem is often a sign that they are trying to cope with other more stressful family or school issues. In addition, parents should support their children by identifying their personal goals outside of gaming and creating collaborative rules on reducing their time gaming.
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Liu is a contributing writer at The Trauma and Mental Health Report.