Online gaming addiction is real. If you read the post about creative ways to nurture healthy boundaries around screen time for younger children, you may be shaking your head saying, “My kid is beyond that point…he is addicted.”
Perhaps anytime you attempt to corral efforts at managing online gaming, you run up against a wall. Maybe your child or teenager is moody, sneaking time online or is lying about her online use. These and other symptoms are typical of an unhealthy online gaming obsession, according to WebMD. You need help with the battle to help your child break a habit that may have started out innocently enough, but now has turned into a full blown craving by which they seem to be enslaved.
You are not alone.
Signs of video game addiction:
- Child is moody, angry, or even aggressive when he is unable to play.
- Child frequently thinks and talks about games when not playing – life is focused on the games.
- Social interactions, previously preferred activities, or grades are negatively impacted.
- Child has stolen to get video games or frequently lies about playing time.
How one family helped their son break his online gaming addiction
Some kids can regulate their computer use with fairly minimal guidance. Dillon was not one of those kids. At fourteen, he was extremely intense, and obsessed with online interactive video games, especially Minecraft. He also played an empire building game that wasn’t as time-consuming but needed frequent daily attention.
No matter how hard his parents, Kate and Marc, tried to help Dillon scale back, the rage and frustration was intense whenever it was time to turn the games off. There was never an end point or feeling of lasting success, no matter how much time was given. It was like giving a kid only one bite of a delicious cookie (or as Kate observed – “more like one sniff of crack cocaine.”) The begging and pleading for more time was almost constant. Even when it was turned off, he always knew those Minecraft battles were going on online, without him. It consumed his mind and his friendships, and nothing else seemed nearly as important to him.
When Kate and Marc were coming to the decision to no longer allow their computer to be used for addictive online games, they presented it to Dillon carefully and gradually, receiving coaching at the same time, to maintain perspective and focus. They developed a three-fold strategy:
- They evaluated their current activities. They started by developing a system and a chart to rate all their different activities for social, cognitive, physical and spiritual benefit divided by the length of time it consumed. Teaching Sunday School together ranked highest, and playing video games ranked lowest (even by Dillon’s admission) when the length of time invested was factored in. This activity helped Dillon understand the relative value of different activities and really begin to understand why screen obsession could be a problem. They all worked on a plan to adjust family priorities and time use.
- They did a three-week family technology fast. Together they all experienced the impact of turning off their screens (except for minimal workplace and school use.) They chose the start of the school year when Dillon would be busy and distracted by other things as much as possible. During this time, Marc and Kate went out of their way to provide many fun family activities on the weekend and during free time—including sports events, social gatherings, board games, outdoor games and activities, special foods, time together, and so on.
- They developed extensive, creative alternatives to technology. Once they completed the fast, Marc and Kate wanted to make the permanent prohibition of online gaming at home more tolerable, and help Dillon accept the change without lasting bitterness.
- They gave him time to transfer his empire to someone else.
- They made an ongoing effort to be available for the fun family activities they developed during their family technology fast.
- They helped him pursue a faith-based, competitive card game called Redemption. They played with him sometimes and even traveled so he could participate in tournaments.
- They got him a fun “mini pool table”.
- They minimized how much they controlled his other activities or activities at other people’s houses. Kate added, “And we prayed an awful lot!”
- They made plans for getting a puppy. (When the screen changes were first implemented, this was about the only other thing he was really interested in.) Dillon knew that they would never have done it otherwise, and the eventual arrival of an adorable little golden retriever helped significantly as he focused on the challenge of training his new pup.
- They supported his involvement in an outdoorsy (no technology) Bible camp for boys. Dillon probably would never have decided to volunteer there if he’d known he could be home battling people at Minecraft and developing his empire. Camp was a fantastic growth experience that he chose for the next three summers as he became a young man with a desire to bless others with his life.
Although we’d love to tell you it was an painless shift to get Dillon off of his addictive games – it was just not so. Marc and Kate could have gone the route of many parents with good intentions, who get railroaded by their child’s intensity to fight for their exciting, gratifying, “glowing drug” and simply give in. It took incredible determination and perseverance to help their son, as he gradually matured through this challenge.
There were four phases of growth over time:
- Anger. Addiction is addiction, and no addict thanks someone for taking away their drug. Initially it was really rough. Dillon reflected back recently, “I hated you for a while after you took away [access to] my games.” He suggested to other parents trying to help their kids – “Expect to be hated.” The key in this phase was Kate and Marc’s patient, empathetic responses to lots of angry, hurtful barbs from Dillon. They understood his pain. Their response communicated – even in your darkest emotions, you are safe with us.
- Adjustment. The non-electronic, alternative activities listed above were really important for Dillon to adjust to his new reality. (Looking back he felt it would have helped to have even more options when he had the urge to play electronic games.) Over time he developed a lot of other interests and values, and now has well established habits of diligence in homework, sports/working out, socializing, playing guitar, etc.. His parents’ effort to provide all these activities communicated – you are loved and so worth sacrificing for.
- Wisdom. Kate and Marc wrote down six key reasons for the no-gaming policy to remind Dillon when he wanted to resume playing. They began to have regular (i.e. monthly) discussions on the impact of technology on their lives, sharing research and personal experiences/family values. Dillon now recognizes, “Those games are so rewarding, because the longer you play the more big and powerful you get. It would be great to just play them a little now and then, but I realize you can’t, because it just gradually consumes more and more of your time.” Their effort to keep an open dialogue and share their experience communicates – you are capable of learning to make wise choices.
- Independence. Dillon’s parents are increasing his digital independence in preparation for college. They anticipate he will have his own iPhone this fall, and possibly a laptop too. (Right now he uses a school laptop that he does not bring home. Although this is not the norm, it works well for them.) When using the internet he is making reasonable and reality-based choices, with Covenant Eyes for accountability. He anticipates he will play some sort of video games when he gets to college, but probably not the same addictive ones. Kate and Marc’s careful planning to gradually increase his independence communicates – you are ultimately responsible for your life, not us.
So as seasoned veterans of a very difficult “battle”, what is Marc and Kate’s advice for younger parents?
- Avoid the slippery slope. “It’s best if parents avoid letting their kids get immersed in these types of online games. Just playing games on your own computer or device or xbox etc. is hard enough to manage, but it don’t hold a candle to this kind of ongoing availability and enticement. These games often begin with just “cute stuff,” but it is a pretty slippery slope.”
- Prioritize connecting with your kid! Kate stated, “I think back on myself as a young mother, and see other moms now focusing so much time and energy on decorating their house, making elaborate recipes or photo albums, or pursuing their own online preoccupations. I wish we could all have a do-over and just realize it is all so much less important than relaxing with and enjoying our kids absolutely as much as possible.”
After Kate interviewed Dillon for this article, he said, “What should we do now?” Kate has learned that phrase actually means, “I would like to do something fun with you.” Everything in her wanted to say, “Oh, Honey, company is coming and I still need to do x,y and z.” She swallowed it all down and realized it was way more important to spend a few minutes playing frisbee with him than having her house shiny for guests.
Just the fact that a 17½-year-old wants to play Frisbee with his mom is great testimony to the power of what Marc and Kate accomplished with their son!
My Response: What jumps out at me re: technology challenges in my home?
- I have young kids and want to establish solid early habits and guidelines about technology to prevent the difficulty level of this.
- I want to start having more discussions about what’s important in life and how technology impacts our family life.
- I want to try a technology fast, and work toward strong limits on screen time for my addiction-prone child.
Wherever you’re at, we are here to help.