4 Steps to Avoid Computer Gaming Addiction in Your Teen
In July, an 18-year-old Taiwanese man died after a 40-hour gaming marathon. He is Taiwan's second young man to die this year in a gaming-related death.
It is an example that admittedly comes from the extreme end of the computer gaming spectrum. The good news is of the reported 90 per cent of children who play computer games, only 10 per cent experience addiction.
What's the mechanism behind gaming addiction? Computer games are designed to keep the player playing by offering either rewards or punishments. On a neurological level, the games stimulate the brain's pleasure centre, which douses the player with a potent dose of feel-good hormones. The person keeps playing, on and on, seeking the next endorphin-rich chemical cocktail. Games also work by punishing moderation. When a person logs off, they risk forfeiting points or rewards they've “worked so hard” to accrue. To maintain their position, they keep playing and playing, losing sight of everything else.
Games can provide an ego boost by allowing players to “do” things they would not normally do: build kingdoms, battle the baddies, be a hero–or a particularly nasty dude, whichever takes the player's fancy. Or it can be as simple as making the person feel more popular online than they are in real life. In some warped sense, that bulging list of 641 “friends” and the steady steams of “likes” confirm their stellar social status.
It is important to remember that computer games provide some positives, such as practice in planning and problem solving. It is also true that some people are more susceptible than others to the addictive nature of computer games. Many will play with no serious problems, experiencing only the benefits of gaming. Some will skate along the brink of addiction. A few will be sucked into full-blown addiction. The addicted player can become depressed, and their school results, social life, and family relationships can suffer.
How do you recognise the signs of potential addiction in a young person?
- Their mood improves while they are playing and suddenly deteriorates when they have to stop. Conversely, their entrenched apathy dissipates at the mention of the game of choice.
- They become uncharacteristically angry or aggressive if required to log off.
- Normal activities have been abandoned and replaced with online activities.
- When they are not playing, they are thinking about the game, even when they should be focusing on something like school work or a conversation.
- Their sleep habits are chaotic, or bedtimes are extremely late. Their hyperstimulated brain may take hours to settle, which hinders falling asleep; sleep becomes frustrating.
Parents whose teens enjoy computer games can minimise the possibility of imbalance and addiction by following some important steps.
- Don't set up computers in bedrooms. Most MMORPGs (multi-player games such as World of Warcraft) require a desktop unit or a particularly powerful laptop. These should be set up in a communal area of the house, to keep players from holing away.
- Establish clear rules about the use of portable devices in bedrooms. Perhaps the rule is that they can do homework in their room, but socialising or playing games should happen in communal rooms. (The writer acknowledges that this is easier set than enforced. Parents who've had success in managing this are encouraged to share tips in the comments).
- Insist on a standard bedtime. This is critical because disrupted sleep can be a precursor to serious mental health complications. If you suspect your teen has a problem, eliminate the temptation for late night social check-ins or gaming sessions by collecting all portable devices (don't forget the iPod Touch and the mobile phone!) at bedtime and recharging them in the parents' room.
- Encourage social and physical activities: Sign them up for a sporting team or a dance class or organise family outings that involve fresh air and sunshine–and sweeten the deal by allowing them to bring a friend.
If your teen has problems keeping their online activities in a healthy balance, act early. This is not a time to wait and see. Help them understand they have an imbalance in their lives. Don't blame or label or criticise; rather help them get an objective picture of their life. Addicts lose sight of what's important, so help them re-evaluate. Counselling may help with this process.