Online gaming addiction is real. Minecraft addiction is real. Your child’s screen habit probably started out innocently enough. Over time it may have escalated to a level that pits you against each other and threatens the joy and connection in your relationship.
Maybe you read the post about creative ways to nurture healthy boundaries around screen time for younger children, and now you’re shaking your head saying, “My kid is beyond that point…he is addicted.”
Whether you’re worried your child is addicted to Minecraft or a different game, you probably feel frustrated or possibly so overwhelmed that you’ve essentially given up trying to set boundaries. If so, you are not alone!
Considering how games are constructed, it’s not surprising that video game addiction can easily happen. With revenue from gaming now well over $150 billion a year, companies have lots of money to spend on making these games enticing and addicting. The National Institute of Health states, “the level of dopamine released… when playing a competition-like video game is comparable to that provoked by psycho-stimulant drugs.” Parents are up against an intense challenge. In light of this, try giving yourself a lot of grace. And give grace to your kids too!
Symptoms of gaming addiction
This concern is a common plea we hear from parents, so let’s start with looking at a summary of the signs of a video game addiction listed by WebMD:
- Child uses games to improve mood, and is irritable, 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 schoolwork are negatively impacted.
- Child lies about playing time.
Do these symptoms resonate with you when you observe your child’s behavior with video games? If so, where do you start? Read on to hear how one family took successful measures to tackle this tough issue and eventually raised a responsible, independent young man!
*A note to parents who feel guilty about the level of conflict, and hopeless about setting limits on video games in your home: You are not alone and you are not a bad parent. What should you do? Even if many of the ideas in the blogpost are not a fit for your family, we’ll have extra alternative suggestions for you at the end of the post under the heading, “If you feel hopeless…” So read on – there is HOPE!
How one family helped their son overcome his Minecraft 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, and seemed to be especially addicted to Minecraft. He also played an empire building game that wasn’t as time-consuming but needed frequent daily attention.
No matter how hard Dillon’s parents, Kate and Marc, tried to help him scale back, the rage and frustration was intense whenever it was time to turn off the games. 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 cocaine”). Dillon was incredibly persistent at begging and pleading for more time.
The games caused BIG negative emotions in and of themselves, not just the limits. Another player would do something mean. His empire would be destroyed in the night. Or the system would have a glitch. Or the timer to tell him it was time to be done, would go off at a crucial moment. Any one of these things could impact their family in a negative way for the rest of the day.
Even when it was turned off, Dillon 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. Kate described it, “…all of real life paled tremendously and sadly in comparison, even when he was doing tightly restricted amounts of Minecraft. It still took up LOTS of brain time. And created endless conflict.”
A difficult decision and a three-fold strategy
Kate and Marc came to the difficult decision that they could no longer allow the screens in their house to be used for addictive online games. Not only that, Kate and Marc also felt strongly that “these were such key years of brain and general development for him, and ‘use it or lose it’ is a very real phenomenon. And he really needed that development!”
Knowing this would be a difficult and long-term battle, Marc and Kate were thoughtful in how they implemented this new decision to prohibit online gaming in their home. They presented it to Dillon carefully and gradually, receiving coaching at the same time, to maintain perspective and focus.
Together, their family developed a three-fold strategy:
1. 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 in priority, and playing video games ranked lowest (even by Dillon’s admission).
This family brainstorm session helped Dillon understand the relative value of different activities. It was a concrete way of helping him begin to understand why screen obsession could be a problem. He and his parents worked together on a plan to adjust family priorities and time use.
A good scripture to include in a discussion like this with your kids is, I Corinthians 6:12, “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.
2.They did a three-week family technology fast.
Together they all experienced the impact of turning off their screens (except for workplace and school use.) They chose a busy time of the year, when Dillon would be 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. This created bonding experiences that helped reinforce the value of relationships over screen time.
3.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. It’s easier to say “No,” when you have a bigger “Yes,” focused on the vitality of real three-dimensional life and God’s purposes for your child. In efforts to support their son, Marc and Kate did the following:
- Gave Dillon time to transfer his empire to someone else
- Made an ongoing effort to be available for the fun family activities they developed during their family technology fast
- Helped him pursue a faith-based, competitive card game, at times playing with him and other times traveling so he could participate in tournaments
- Got him a fun mini pool table
- Minimized how much they controlled his other activities or activities at other people’s houses. Kate added, “And we prayed an awful lot!”
- 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
- Supported his involvement in an outdoorsy 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
- Generally encouraged more three-dimensional creativity. Like this NASA engineer who found a creative way to keep squirrels away from his bird feeders
Helping your child feel loved as they struggle to overcome a Minecraft addiction
Although we’d love to tell you it was a painless shift to get Dillon off of his addictive games – it was just not so. It was really difficult. Really difficult! 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. Marc was willing to be the “bad guy,” and both parents prioritized prayer and parent coaching. It took incredible determination and perseverance to help their son, as he gradually matured through this challenge.
Four phases of growth in recovery
There were four phases of growth over time as Marc and Kate incorporated the Connected Families Framework to help their son feel loved and connected:
Addiction is addiction, and no addict thanks someone for taking away their drug. Initially it was really rough. Dillon reflected back several years later, “I hated you [Mom and Dad] for a while after you took away [access to] my games. It was so frustrating not to have what other kids had!” 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.”
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 been helpful 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, and socializing. He took up guitar and photography, read a lot more, explored coding and robotics, art and nature, and on and on.
In short, he blossomed, developed a lot of self-discipline, and grew a lot of varied brain pathways, instead of mainly just one (that focused on slaughtering things.) His parents’ sacrifice and effort to provide these activities communicated, “You are loved and so worth sacrificing for.” And also a passionate belief that, “You are called to so much more in life than addiction to a glowing screen.”
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 monthly discussions about the impact of technology on their lives, sharing research, personal experiences, and family values. (For a resource on guiding relaxed, productive conversations with kids about technology, you can get ideas on this Tech Talk Tuesday blog.)
As a maturing high school student Dillon began to recognize, “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.” Dillon and his parents’ efforts to keep an open dialogue and share their experience communicated, “You are capable of learning to make wise choices.”
Dillon’s parents increased his digital independence in preparation for college. When using the internet he made reasonable and reality-based choices, with Covenant Eyes for accountability. Kate and Marc’s careful planning to gradually increase his independence communicated, “You are ultimately responsible for your life, not us.”
What does life look like after recovering from a gaming addiction?
You might be wondering, “Where is Dillon today?” Seven years after his parents began to address this challenge, Dillon is an upperclassman in college. When the pandemic hit, he ended up at home recovering from Covid. His mom reported to me…
Dillon had gotten lots of progress on his schoolwork and a good start on a big paper. I remarked how much school work is going to get done this semester with everyone quarantining. He responded, “No—Most people are just online or doing video games most of the time….. I’m thankful for the way I was raised and the choices I’ve made to not get caught up in that again and to make better use of my time.”
Wow. Praise the Lord! I don’t think I ever really thought I would hear him say that. Especially back in the day….
When I heard this from Kate I connected with Dillon and asked him his perspective on this change for him. He described a healthy balance now where he can play online for a short time, meet some new friends, and then be done! He shared, “Especially now that I have gotten to college, I have become very grateful for what my parents did. While at school I have seen so many people who are addicted to screens. It sucks their time away from their school work, friends, and doing things that are more fun. I have been so grateful to have been saved from that addiction and to be able to put my time into those better things.”
Building healthy screen habits when kids are young
As seasoned veterans of a very difficult challenge, 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. These games often begin with just ‘cute stuff,’ but it is a pretty slippery slope. Especially when you start introducing games that are interactive with others who are also playing.
- Prioritize connecting with your child! Kate stated, “I feel like I was prioritizing the wrong things. In a lot of ways I wish I could 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.”
- Be willing to sacrifice your own screen privileges and time to model healthy screen habits and diverse interests for your child.
Taking the next step in your family
Are there technology challenges in your home? What resonates with you in Marc and Kate’s story?
- I have young kids and want to establish solid early habits and guidelines about technology to prevent addictive patterns.
- We want to start having more discussions about what’s important in life and how technology impacts our family.
- Our family wants to try a technology fast, and work toward strong limits on screen time for my addiction-prone child.
If you’re feeling hopeless and discouraged
If the idea of setting reasonable limits on screen time is not possible, or would deeply fracture your relationship with your child, there still are helpful things you can do. These ideas flow from the Connected Families Framework:
Start by confessing and asking forgiveness for the times you’ve been angry, condescending, or controlling in efforts to regulate screens. Or ways in which you’ve been obsessed with your own screens. Do this in a sincere, but light-hearted way, maybe even poking a little fun at yourself, so the discussion is not filled with anxiety and discouragement.
Then lean into prayer and faith so you can let go of your anxiety when your child is on their video games, and so you don’t go back into the same old rut. And model putting your screens down and really listening to anything your child has to say.
Prioritize connection over all else! Try to offer creative, out-of-the-box, three-dimensional ways to have fun together, especially if it’s a little outside your comfort zone. For example, we’ve had paintball battles, played with foam swords and homemade javelins, and gone ziplining with our boys. There are ways you can connect with a child who doesn’t seem to want to connect with you. (Even if this relationship is between a mom and her son.) Have a keen eye out for interests your child has that you could join them in. If they will let you, find out what games they are enjoying and play with them. (You both might get some good laughs out of it!)
Even if your child says “No” to your offers, don’t give up. You can smile and say, “Ok, maybe some other time,”. A calm, non-defensive response shows that you are interested in spending time with them! But it also shows your emotional well-being doesn’t rise and fall with their acceptance or rejection of you!
Model a life of calling from God, and talk about the fulfillment you experience. Express confidence in your child’s ability to grow into God’s purposes in real three-dimensional life, and look for opportunities to develop their natural gifts, and also to serve together.
Learn to ask good questions to build wisdom. You can sign up for Tech Talk Tuesday on the Screenagers website. Although you may not find it comfortable to sit down every Tuesday and have a structured “Now we’re going to talk about screen time” chat, thinking through the example questions will help you learn to have relaxed, values-building conversations with your kids about life and screens.
Do not use losing screen time as the go-to consequence for any misbehavior because that communicates it is the only thing in life that’s valuable. But do expect your child to contribute to the family and get chores done before getting on their games.
If your child is truly addicted this is not an easy road. But it’s also not a hopeless one. This viral TED talk, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” is a fascinating perspective that will bring insight and encouragement.
Another success story
My nephew’s story (shared with permission) is a great example of the concepts in the TED talk. David was in full-blown video game addiction for years. He had both ADHD and OCD and gaming was the perfect “medication”. When I saw him at family gatherings, I’d think, “His body is here, but David is not.” He could barely look me in the eye or hold a real conversation, but his parents loved and encouraged him despite his struggles.
Later, David met a girl that he wanted to spend his life with. He knew this was what he wanted because he had seen it modeled at home. Libby made it quite clear that a relationship would mean he would be committing his whole, unaddicted heart. It was not a quick and easy transition. Though it was hard, he got rid of his high-powered video game laptop. Instead, he bought a scaled-down one that would not support gaming graphics. He did marry the love of his life, and they are a strong team for managing this temptation well. He has a rewarding full-time job, is working hard to remodel their house, and they are planning to start a family. Clearly, the “joy of life” has crowded out his desire for addictive video games.
Whichever stage you are in, or whatever your particular challenge may be, please remember – there is always hope!
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 Never stop having faith, hope, and love for your struggling child.
God cares deeply about your family, and we are here to help. Parenting kids through tough issues does not have to be a journey you take alone!
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