What to do when your child has an unhealthy obsession with online games
Emerging research is revealing a strong correlation between people with executive function issues and negative screen time use/ abuse. Essentially, if you have a neurotypical brain, chances are good that you use screen time to have fun, connect with others and take a break. You are also able to put down the screens and interact in the real world without any significant withdrawal symptoms. Lovely, right?
But if you have executive function issues, your screen use can take on obsessive qualities, negatively affect your ability to function in the world, feed depression and anxiety, and hinder healthy relationships.
If your child has ADHD (his ability to focus is compromised), and say he is gifted (his brain is churning through data at a faster rate or may have a different perspective than most children). He is a prime candidate for screen addiction, because the ADHD brain often feels really good when it is gaming.
The quick decision-making, the frenetic screen action, the multiplayer aspect and the fact that the game never ends can feel normal and good for the ADHD and gifted brain.
The lying, the sneaking, the hacking of passwords, the downloading of apps (and deleting yours) are behaviours driven by the reality that when he stops gaming his brain doesn't feel safe. He is literally compelled to do this (like an addiction). I have a lot of empathy for him. When I binge on social media, it feels good in the moment, but I can say that I rarely feel better for having done it. Like gorging on sugar or alcohol or heroin or sex, our brain feeds on the anticipation of the feeling, but then it never feels satisfied.
What should you do?
Child psychologist, Adam Pletter, runs an online class for parents who need support with handling screens and children.
He suggests a clear family contract, with every rule spelled out for parent and child. It also needs to spell out the consequences of breaking the rules (increased restriction, etc).
Pletter also suggests a more comprehensive online-control system to prevent hacking and stealing, such as Circle from Disney. There is no perfect answer for keeping children off technology, and we are not going for a scorched-earth solution here. But we absolutely can stop the purchasing of apps and decrease the sneaking by having the games blocked.
I am also a big fan of "cell-free" Saturdays or Sundays. This means that every family member stays off their screens for the day. Yes, it is hard to get used to and yes, you can make exceptions for sports games or something else special that the whole family can enjoy. But in general, this is a fun way to reconnect, get outside, play board or card games, or simply laze about and read.
Finally, you have to find other things to occupy his mind. Of course you want him to experience some boredom. You are not expected to entertain your son night and day. You would go mad. But if he loves games and screens, is there a coding class or camp he could attend? Can he attach to the tech person at school? Could he mentor younger children in understanding the fun side of some games? Keep an open mind and look for options.
This is hard work. You will probably be managing behaviours that are highly provocative, and holding these boundaries will test your patience on every level. Please find a safe place to unload your big feelings - a partner, a friend, a therapist, anyone who will offer compassion and a non-judgmental ear. Your main goal is to keep some of the technology at bay while you give your son's brain a chance to mature. We need to let time do its work. Do not get so stuck in the ugly little details that you lose focus on the bigger picture. Time equals brain maturity. Your son needs to grow up to better handle the onslaught of digital media.
-The Washington Post