I'm subscribed to all kinds of psychological newsletters. I absolutely love it because it's a way to stay up-to-date on all the newest information in the "psych world." Last week, a newsletter contained an article about Video Game Addiction. I was incredibly intrigued because this is a topic that has come up frequently among the therapists I supervise. They've all had families come into the therapy room because of teens who seem to be addicted to video games!
What about you? Do you ever feel concerned about your child and video games? What about your child and their use of electronics?
I have noticed an increase in children (even babies) being exposed to tablets and cellphones on a regular basis. More disturbing to me is the family that goes out to dinner and EVERYONE is using a phone, tablet, or those new Ziosks at the table.
Have you noticed that? Next time you go out to eat, take a moment to look around and notice. Better yet, next time you are at dinner, take a look and see what YOU and YOUR family are doing. I'd be willing to bet that at least one of you (if not all of you) are using electronics.
This article isn't to blame or shame you. We are all guilty of this behavior at least some of the time. I know I've been guilty of this too! That's why it's important to draw attention to it, so that we can be aware of our behavior and make efforts to change for the better.
What is Addiction?
Without going too far into the biology of addiction, let me explain how addiction works. Addiction has to do with a behavior (Ex: drinking) that increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for feelings of happiness (or the high).
An addiction is formed when the person has to increase their engagement in the behavior (drinking) to get the same "high" (dopamine). This process is known as tolerance, where the brain recognizes it's getting too much dopamine, so it engages in a process to filter out how much it's getting. As such, the person increases their behavior to produce those higher levels of dopamine.
When that person isn't getting enough dopamine, they can experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can cause the person to have a behavioral, emotional, or physical response to going without the dopamine. This might include irritability, vomiting, and depression, among other things.
Hopefully that all made sense and gives you an idea of how addictions are formed without getting too far into the physiology of it all. Now, let's look at how video gaming can become addictive.
What is Video Game Addiction?
At this point in time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has come to identify video game addiction as a real thing in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). They call it "Gaming Disorder," and describe it as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
There are many reasons why a person can become addicted to video games. Those reasons include:
Getting to be anyone you want to be- As a fictional character, you can be whatever you dream of. Games today allow you to change what you look like, age, gender, and so on. You can have friends who only know you as the character in the game and not in real life. (Think of the child who is bullied at school. In a video game, they can be popular and forget their real life as the lonely kid everyone makes fun of.) The gamer can also engage in behavior that they are curious about without the consequences in real life. For example, some video games allow stealing, murder, and even sex. This allows a gamer to experience these behaviors without real life consequences (like pregnancy or jail time).
Getting to escape from reality- Once again, you can enjoy an entire universe of the things you like. If you enjoy fantasy, you can "live" in a fantasy universe where you are the hero and the world depends on you! The same goes for army-style, sci-fi, and even gang-style life! If you can think of it, there's a game for it. This escape becomes even more addicting when your real life is filled with hardships. The game allows you to escape this reality and forget your troubles for a little while.
Daily rewards for playing- Many games are set up to reward you for logging into the game daily. For example, Pokemon Go rewards you with "streaks" if you capture just 1 pokemon each day. After you complete the "streak," you get a reward. So, not only are you rewarded for logging into the game, but you get rewarded for doing it multiple times in a row! This incentives people to go on daily to play.
Consequences for not playing- In many games, failure to go on daily causes you to lose your "streak," or lose resources (like coins) in the game. So, not only are you rewarded for playing daily, but you're punished if you don't.
Being rewarded for progress AND for achievement- Video games are set up where the character gains "experience points" for completing tasks. Something as simple as picking up an item in the game will grant experience points. Every point makes the character stronger, allowing them to achieve harder tasks that grant greater rewards. Individuals can watch their progress since most video games will display an "experience bar," where the number of experience points are displayed. Every time the individual gains more experience, the experience bar fills a little more, showing the gamer how close they are to the next level. And, of course, once you reach the next level, you are often given more rewards.
Getting to watch your character grow in this way serves as a reward. This means that the gamer is being rewarded for progress and not just achievement. In real life, experience also make us better at what we do, but we can't see it so tangibly. Furthermore, it often takes weeks and months of practice before we can really see our growth in any skill. This means that we don't necessarily feel rewarded for our progress. This brings us to our next point....
Instant gratification & no failure- Nobody likes to wait for gratification these days. Our society is becoming increasingly more demanding, less patient, and frequently less willing to work for it. Why spend all summer developing your soccer skills and putting in the hard work when you can become a soccer hero in a video game after only a few hours? And if you fail in the game, you can hit that re-start button and try again, which means there is no failure. You don't have to be afraid of losing because there are no consequences for failure. You can try over and over again until you finally master a challenge. So, why take a risk in real life when you might need to face your fear of failure?
As you can see, there are several reasons why people become engrossed by video games. All of these reasons are going to produce dopamine in the brain, which starts that cycle of addiction. No one is immune to this: adults and children are equally susceptible to potential addiction. So, what do you do about it?
Redefining Our Relationship with Electronics
I frequently get asked by parents about electronics and their kids:
How old should my child be before I let them play with a tablet?
How long should I allow my child to play a video game?
Are tablets bad for kids?
What should I do if my child is addicted to video games?
What is your recommendation for kids using electronics?
These are just a few of the questions I get asked regularly, and they are ALL very good questions. The reality is, video games, tablets, cellphones, and TVs aren't bad things. They aren't evil in any way, and they can be incredibly useful in helping your child learn and grow.
Take our interaction together right now. You are reading my article, learning about a topic that is important to you. And in just a few minutes, I'm going to give you some tips to help you and your family in the age of electronics. Without electronics and the internet, I wouldn't be able to share my knowledge with you!
Electronics aren't bad, but they can become addicting. Earlier, we looked at video game addiction, but the reality is, kids can become addicted to ANY electronic. It could even be YouTube Kids on a tablet! (Have you ever seen a toddler zone out for HOURS watching YouTube Kids? It's kinda scary in my opinion.) So, how do you manage this? I'll give you hint, it's not abstinence.
Unlike other forms of addiction, the research is showing that abstinence is not the solution to electronic addiction. The reality is, electronics aren't going anywhere. They are becoming increasingly present all around us. From your home, to school, to the local restaurant, electronics (and video games) are EVERYWHERE! As such, your kid can't escape them.
The key to managing electronic addiction is to create a new, healthier relationship with them. We must learn to live a balanced life-style with electronics where there are boundaries and limits from the start. This means renegotiating how you manage electronics in your household, not only for your kids, but for yourself as well.
5 Tips to Creating a Balance in Your Home
After reviewing the clinical literature on this topic, I've pulled together some simple tips you can begin applying today to help you and your family live a healthier life-style with electronics.
1. Create Limits on Electronic-Use & Start Early
No one should be playing video games, surfing the internet, or even watching TV all day long. Bodies need to move in order stay healthy. Your first step is to set up limits on using electronics. Almost all devices have a way of doing this now.
For example, Xbox One has the ability for parents to set limits on their child's account through a Microsoft account online. You can set time-limits for individual games or a time-limit for the actual device. You can also set a cut-off time where the Xbox will kick the gamer out once the time has come. In my house, my kids can only play for a few hours before the system will kick them out of their games. I also have a separate cut-off time (8:30 p.m.) that will kick the kids out of the game even if they haven't used all of their time yet.
There are also apps for tablets that allow you to set limits for kids. Like the Xbox, you can determine cut-off times or set a time-limit that will shut down games on the tablet once those limits are met.
If all else fails, you can use a timer to set your limit. When the timer goes off, time's up and your child needs to switch to a different activity.
Whenever you decide to allow your child to start using electronics, start applying limits. Many parents allow toddlers to use electronics for an unlimited amount of time because it keeps the toddler busy. This allows the parent to get other chores done in peace. As convenient as this may be, it's a recipe for disaster.
Allowing your child to have unlimited access to electronics at an early age has negative side-effects. Not only is your child's brain under-stimulated, research has shown this can lead to poor large motor skill development, issues with attachment (i.e. the Parent-Child Relationship), poor communication skill development, poor social skill development, and even an increase of disruptive behaviors, such as temper tantrums. Excessive electronic-use in older kids also has some negative outcomes such as poor social skills, obesity, and an increase in anger outbursts!
No matter how you look at it, unlimited electronic-use isn't going to benefit your child, even if all they do is play educational games. So, setting limits early on is your best course of action.
When setting limits, consider your child's age and development. Young children, such as toddlers, shouldn't be playing on tablets or cellphones for long periods of time. Try to limit to only an hour a day. Older children can be allowed to play for longer periods of time, but should only be allowed after other responsibilities have been completed.
2. Make Electronic-use a Reward
In my household, my kids aren't allowed to play on the Xbox until after they've completed their homework, household chores, eaten dinner, and had their baths. Essentially, playing with electronics in my home is a reward for completing their responsibilities. Consider doing the same in your home.
Think about it... what are the things you want to make sure your child does daily? Perhaps you want them to make their bed, clean their rooms, do homework, etc. Whatever it is, electronic-use should be reserved until after daily responsibilities are completed. You can make exceptions for weekends if you wish, but it's best if you are consistent all 7 days of the week.
3. Monitor What Your Kids are Playing
All video games have a rating, just like movies. Are you aware of what your child is playing? Like I said earlier, games these days allow for sex, drug-use, stealing, murder, and a bunch of other stuff you may not want your child doing. Some games glorify gangs, prostitution, and violence. This, in turn, can actually have an impact on the brain and desensitize your child to these behaviors.
Pay attention to the rating on the games your child is playing. Watch your child play the games too, so that you can get a feel for what they are being exposed to. If you find yourself unsettled by it, it's time to pull the plug on that game.
This doesn't just go for games either. This goes for internet use, YouTube, and so on. Did you know that there has been an increase of YouTube Kids videos with explicit images spliced into them?
Although YouTube does its best to screen the content on YouTube Kids, they've informed users that they are unable to eliminate all inappropriate content. That means your child has the potential to stumble upon dangerous material, like videos that encourage your child to commit suicide and other acts of violence! No joke!
The lesson here is that you should be keeping an eye on what your child is doing. It doesn't matter if your child is a teenager (there are websites directed towards teens that encourage them to send naked pictures of themselves, commit suicide, etc.), a 10-year-old, or a toddler, you should be vigilante. Electronics are not babysitters. They are tools, and like any tool, they can be used for good or bad.
4. Get Your Child Involved in Other Activities
Video games (and social media for that matter) shouldn't be the only way your child decompresses or socializes. It's important for your child to develop other ways to relax and to learn how to interact with people in real life. If you haven't done so already, sign your child up for extracurricular activities through their school or local community center. It doesn't matter if it's a sport, drama, art classes, or simply a play date with other kids in your neighborhood. Get them engaged!
5. Be a Good Role Model
Ok, here it comes... you need to be a good role model! If you've read other articles on my site, you've probably noticed that I'm a big believer in Modeling, but for good reason! The research shows that our children learn much about how to behave by watching us! This is a theory known as social learning, and it's one of the main ways kids learn how to interact with the world!
If you want your kids to have a healthy relationship with electronics, you need to model that healthy relationship first. This means that, at the dinner table, your phone should be put away. If you are at a restaurant, keep your phone in your purse! Silence that sucker, and pay attention to the people you have right in front of you. Set your own time-limit with electronics. Mine is 9:00 p.m. When that time hits, my phone is put away. I may still watch a TV show with my family, read to my kids (or to myself), or work on a creative project (like drafting my next book), but texts are silenced and my phone/tablet are put away.
Before you can really enforce healthy habits around electronic-use, you have to begin modeling the behavior. Always remember, "actions speak louder than words"!
I hope this post was helpful to you! Electronic-use in kids is a hot topic, and I think it's an important one to consider once you have kids. Avoid the pitfalls with electronics and harness the positive power they can have! Follow these tips and I think you'll find yourselves with a happier family dynamic and healthier household.