True gaming addiction is rare and extreme.
But when online gaming takes centre stage in your child's life, it’s time to set some boundaries and point them in a healthier, and ultimately happier, direction.
Sheila Hageman is a single mum of three, including two game-crazy pre-teen boys. Sheila also happens to be Communications Director at The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (CITA) in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Yet, despite her expertise, she struggles as much as the rest of us to keep her own kids balanced online - especially in a world emerging from COVID restrictions.
As a cyber professional at one of the world’s preeminent resources for neurobiological and psychological research into internet and technology addiction, Sheila is well aware that true gaming addiction has distinctive and extreme features.
The behaviour of her own gaming-mad sons doesn’t rise to the standard of clinical addiction. But that doesn't mean it isn’t concerning - or doesn’t need boundaries.
Says Sheila, “The mostly young male patients who come through our door are the ones who are gaming up to sixteen hours a day, have flunked out of school, and can’t hold down a job.
"Their relationships with family and friends are radically impacted, and oftentimes, their addictions have caused major financial repercussions to themselves and their families.”
For those who say Internet Addiction isn’t a real addiction, the brain doesn’t know the difference between whether you’re getting high on drugs or video games ..."
The addicted kids who come (or are dragged) to CITA for treatment are often literally unable to leave their bedrooms. Their parents deliver dinner to them at their gaming stations, because otherwise they won’t eat.
In fact, they may even resist taking bathroom breaks - which is why it isn't unusual to find bottles of urine lined up under their desks.
“For those who say Internet Addiction isn’t a real addiction, the brain doesn’t know the difference between whether you’re getting high on drugs or video games,” Sheila explains.
“Our feel-good chemical dopamine is released in our bodies and it feels great—gaming, social media use, and surfing the web create a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps making our kids want more of that rush."
Yet she’s the first to admit that, during the pandemic, she allowed her pre-teen sons “to game their brains out.” Why? Simply, she admits, to save her sanity.
But also because she was monitoring their behaviour closely, keeping a watchful eye out for telltale signs like “super crankiness when having to put a screen down, not doing well in school, or withdrawing from friends and other activities.”
In the absence of addictive behaviours like these, parents can relax … up to a point.
But if you find you’re spending too much time breaking up arguments about turn-taking on a game - or urging your children to play outside - or dealing with meltdowns when you say “no more” - it’s definitely time to institute some stronger boundaries.
In Sheila’s own family, she’s recently implemented a new rule in an effort to safeguard her family’s “functioning and well-being”: a maximum of two hours of fun (i.e., non-school-related) screen-time per day plus one “movement activity” a day - whether dancing, walking or playground time.
She’s also extended before-bedtime reading to compensate for lost gaming time, and has even supplied a special booklight for reading under the covers.
The take-home message?
True gaming addiction is rare and extreme. Most parents don’t need to stress about it. Gaming has its place in the lives of our digital kids. But when it takes centre stage, it’s time to set some boundaries and point them in a healthier, and ultimately happier, direction.
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