I remember when my family got our video gaming console in the 1980s. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, where summers were for running around outdoors, but the winters could be brutally cold. This particular winter, my brother had been sick, and I had been stir-crazy. I’m sure my parents had reached their limit. My dad came home with a special surprise that changed my 10-year-old life: the Nintendo.
There were moments of triumph with Mario saving the princess and Duck Hunt, but my favorite was Tetris. I could spend hours manipulating those little blocks into perfect lines. I remember closing my eyes and seeing phantom images of falling blocks behind my eyelids.
Video games have evolved quite a bit since the first mass-produced home systems. The draw to gaming and screentime as a whole has become considerably more enticing over the proceeding decades. In 2019, the WHO (The World Health Organization) made “Gaming Disorder” a “mental health condition.” Although the diagnosing criteria for a “Gaming Disorder” is in its early stages, the reality is that gaming and internet use, in general, is impacting the emotional balance of youth across America. I see this in my counseling office weekly. This can be understandably alarming to parents.
Should I be worried about my child’s video gaming screentime?
As a parent, knowing what criteria determines a “gaming disorder” may help put things into perspective for you. In the world of psychology, a disorder usually requires a fairly extreme set of circumstances. So you may be relieved to realize your child does not fall into this category. However, with that said, this does not mean your child is out of the woods. Just because a child doesn’t have diabetes, doesn’t mean they should be eating excessive amounts of sugar. In order for a gaming habit to be diagnosed as a disorder, there are 3 criteria that need to be evident for at least 12 months (although severity may allow for an earlier diagnosis).
1) Gaming takes extreme precedence over other activities.
The person pushes other activities that they previously enjoyed by the wayside. You may notice a change in sleep patterns and dietary problems that go well beyond a weekend. I’ve had kids say they were so wrapped up in a gaming session that they “regularly forget to use the bathroom.” There is a lack of physical activity and withdrawal from previously important relationships.
2) Lack of control over these gaming behaviors, even when they result in negative consequences.
The gaming continues to escalate even when there are negative consequences (i.e. punishments). For kids and teens, this may mean sneaking onto games even if they KNOW that they are going to get caught. They seemingly can’t help themselves, or they are willing to take the punishment because they can’t stop the compulsive behavior to “game.” Your child may be doing things that seem “out of character” like going to extremes to discover passwords or overcoming parental locks.
3) The condition leads to significant distress and impairment in work (school) and relationships.
Forgoing or delaying schoolwork, studying, or other responsibilities despite knowing this will lead to family tension, school failings or job firings. This may be personally acknowledged or objectively obvious to those around the person. This is comparable to the drug addict essentially becoming “powerless” to the drug and becoming unable to fulfill basic responsibilities.
Parents, Take A Breath
If you are reading this and thinking, “This is totally my child,” and you’re starting to freak out, take a breath. Remember: We are talking about the EXTREMES of EACH these behaviors. Criteria should be met for 12 months unless the severity is the extreme of the extreme. Most people, even those making a living gaming, don’t meet criteria for a video gaming disorder.
If your child prefers to be online but will get off and engage when you ask them to (even if they complain or even get a little upset), that’s a good sign. If you’ve caught your child sneaking screen time even when they knew they aren’t supposed to, you can relax. (That’s called being a teenager.)
But if your child is losing sleep, not eating, slipping in classwork and is unable to control their emotional outbursts, further exploration and support may be warranted. Oftentimes teens are using the internet as a coping mechanism for managing anxiety or depression. When these issues are addressed, other behaviors often decrease.
What you can do today to help your child, whether they have a diagnosable “gaming disorder” or not:
Rather than attempting to take away video games or the internet, get your kids involved in activities that don’t require a screen. Actively occupy their time with something else. This effectively limits their internet exposure, which we know is correlated with increased anxiety and depression, even without a gaming disorder. If you are curious about recommended guidelines, the American Pediatric Association Recommends a combined total of 3 hours of screentime per day.
As a bonus, find things that you can do together as a family and build quality connections. Go for a walk. Join a bowling league. Hit the trampoline park. Research shows that kids are more likely to share about themselves with you when they are engaged in another activity (even as teens). Build these connections and you’re more likely to enter their world online and offline, which is a win/win any way you look at it.