The World Health Organization (WHO) has made it official this Summer – digital games can be addictive, and those addicted to them need help. This isn’t surprising to me a bit since, as a psychologist in private practice, a good amount of my time these days is spent helping children and teenagers and their parents create and maintain balance with various forms of technology. And while excessive gaming is usually a secondary issue to a larger primary one (e.g., social anxiety or depression), more and more, excessive gaming is becoming the primary reason parents (with their child or teen) show up in my office seeking help. Whether it’s Xbox, iPhone, PlayStation or computers, excessive gaming can be a tough problem for parents to successfully address.
There’s no doubt that many children and teens spend a lot of time video and computer gaming these days, but understanding the difference between normal and acceptable gaming and compulsive or addictive gaming is important as parents. In my opinion, gaming is a real problem to contend with when it negatively impacts the child or teen across his important areas of life – his social life, his academic life and his home life. These 8 signs are good indicators that your child or teen has a gaming problem.
Your child or teen socializes exclusively online during games but rationalizes strongly that he has a social life and plenty of friends. Yes, generally children and teens spend a lot of time with screens and social media these days, but youth who game too much typically suffer socially. Although children and teens that game excessively will beg to differ, virtual friendships or online back and forth dialogue during gaming is not commensurate with real social moments or friendships off-line or in actual reality.
Your child or teen grossly minimizes and distorts the amount of time he spends gaming. Most children or teens I work with will say that they spend a couple of hours a day gaming, but after closely reviewing their schedule, that number is usually much, much higher. When your child or teen is spending 4, 8, or 12 hours a day gaming, the impact on important other areas in his life will undoubtedly be great.
Your child or teen no longer finds joy in the activities that he used to find joy in. Many parents tell me that their child or teen seemed much happier and was more engaged in activities before gaming took over. In addition to a child or teen’s social life suffering, athletics can also be an area that is compromised by excessive gaming.
Your child or teen no longer participates in family activities because that would mean leaving his games. Family meals and events outside the home can become irritants for the excessive gamer that often just wants to be left alone. In extreme cases, parents will have the family activity without the child or teen (e.g., a dinner or a vacation) because it’s just easier to give into the youth’s need to game than it is to fight with him about participating.
Your child or teen is overly preoccupied with the games he plays. Children and teens who game excessively will sometimes even go so far as to say that they can make money or have a career due to their proficient gaming skills and acumen. Yes, certain individuals on YouTube can make a living playing Minecraft or Fortnite, but it wouldn’t be wise for your child or teen to count on that for themselves. Some children or teens will also assert their strong desire to one day become a game designer simply because they enjoy gaming so much. And, at the extreme, excessive gamers will only want to talk about their games and characters in conversations. A number of children teens I’ve worked with have even preferred listening to video game music for pleasure over popular, hip-hop or rock music.
Your child or teen demonstrates irritability and even anger at times, especially when you interfere with his gaming. In severe cases, children and teens that game excessively will become angry and even aggressive and hostile if their parents challenge or try to limit their gaming time for activities or appointments (e.g., a family meal, a dentist appointment or a haircut). As a psychologist, I have had many a session over the years where parents will show up in the waiting room without their child or teen because the youth has refused to leave his video game to attend the therapy appointment.
Your child or teen spends a lot of money on games. For children and teens that game excessively, the need to play new games can be endless. Like alcoholism or drug addiction, a child or teen that games excessively will require more and more to feel satisfied. These children or teens will typically overplay a game, lose interest, and then move on to another game. In extreme cases, children and teens will steal money or use their parents’ credit cards without permission to purchase games due to their intense need to game.
Your child or teen’s gaming has caused significant problems across the important areas of his life. When excessive gaming comprises a child or teen’s life negatively, the impact is usually seen in his academic life, his social life and his home life. In my experience, the impact is usually seen initially in one area or environment but then spreads to others.
So, if your child or teen is experiencing one or more of the abovementioned warning signs, as parents, it’s most definitely time to step-in. If increased structure (i.e. setting time limits or a reward plan for gaming) doesn’t fix the problem, then I recommend a consultation with a child psychologist. It may be the case that your child or teen is simply immature, and he just needs some help to create a more balanced life. It may, however, be the case that your child or teen is gaming excessively because of a larger issue — where excessive gaming is a compensatory behavior for, or an escape from, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and/or another mental health matter.
It’s also important to note that the start of the school year can be an additionally stressful and difficult time for the child or teen with a significant gaming problem. I’ve unfortunately seen many of the youth I’ve worked with losing an academic quarter or two, or sometimes even struggle over the entire school year, because of their excessive gaming. Thus, getting the school involved and seeking out additional professional help sooner than later is oftentimes a must.